A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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The lovely title of Hosseini’s novel is from a poem he recites toward the end of his story. The story is about a long lesson in endurance. No matter what a person is given, to survive and to live, one must find the resolve to endure that which is beyond her power. We are to believe that under any circumstance we still can live under a thousand splendid suns. It is the enduring friendship of two women to whom life has dealt disparaging circumstances. The setting is Afghanistan in the last three decades of war and turmoil.

Mariam is an illegitimate child whose scornful mother hates the world and men.  Her relentless and loud scorn almost robs Mariam of her gentle nature, but not. At 15, Mariam is married off to a middle-aged shoemaker with bad teeth and a brutish disposition. Years later, we meet Laila, 14, who is the daughter of a middle class teacher. In an inexplicable moment, a stray rocket destroys much of her extended family. Thinking her boyfriend has been killed and carrying his child, she reluctantly agrees to be the second wife of Mariam’s husband.

While their world rages, these two women learn to cope by nurturing their relationship. They learn to collect strength from the other as they suffer long and frequent in their repressive culture and unhappy and abusive marriages. At first, Mariam is resentful and accuses Laila of stealing her husband. After the much younger Laila gives birth to Aziza, Mariam’s gentle nature prevails and transforms her into a surrogate mother for both. Through some harrowing experiences and with some painful consequences, their friendship endures but not without a sad ending.

Mariam and Laila may well be a modern version of the Biblical patriarch Abraham’s women. Both narrations are a study of human pathology and divine redemption. Whether in today’s Kabul or ancient Canaan, when chronic upheavals brings systemic and personal oppression, women suffer more and more often than men. Hosseini, an American medical doctor born in Afghanistan and a goodwill envoy for the United Nations Refugee Agency, writes unevenly and with mixed success as women’s voices telling the story. Many scenes are weaved together like a soap opera texture. What could have been powerful and deep emotions read glossily and quickly. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read. It celebrates courage and hope, friendship and family, commitment and sacrifice.

This story also serves well for St. Paul’s prose in Romans 5: but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Suffering, deserved or undeserved, can make someone bitter like Mariam’s mother. And yet, when suffering is endured under the light of a splendid sun, it can make a good person better, like Mariam. Long suffering is a sure sign of divine grace and redemption.

Riverhead Books, 2007