Is it a good read?

I’ve just finished reading ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini, a number one bestseller, the cover proclaims. It also shouts out the high praise the book has received: ‘A suspenseful epic’, ‘A triumph’, ‘Unforgettable’, ‘A masterful story’. Does it, I wonder, deserve such acclaim. Would it be such a success if it weren’t set in Afghanistan? And what effect does the fact that his previous novel was a Richard and Judy book (with all the hype that went with that) have?

If that opening’s got the whiff of sour grapes about it, let me tell you the things I do like about the book. First it tells a good story. It does that thing all books have to do – keeps you turning the pages. It’s easy and undemanding to read. It presents the complexities of the Afghan situation in a simple way (albeit from a westernised perspective) which helped me understand the background to the Mujahideen and the Taliban.

I admire  Hosseini’s abilty to create believable female characters in Mariam and Laila. As point of view characters, they feel authentic. However, there is very little distinction between the two as separate beings, despite their different ages and experience.  

The unremitting violence Mariam and Laila have to endure makes me less not more sympathetic to them. I accept many women live oppressed, brutalised lives, and perhaps what the book describes is a reality for Afghan women. The world outside their home is violent and dangerous; inside is worse. But in the end, the numerous scenes of punching, hair ripping from scalp, kicking, slamming against walls that the women suffer at Rasheed’s hands, achieve less impact not more.

For me there are two books that describe inhumane treatment meted out to women in a far more compelling way, despite not having number one bestseller plastered over their covers. Those books? ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ by Maggie O’Farrell and ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry. O’Farrell’s Esme Lennox and Barry’s Rose Mcnulty both fail to conform to the conventions of their society and time, and are incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals as a result. Their stories, heartbreaking and horrifying as they are, are told with a subtlety and elegance that eclipses Hosseini’s heavy-handed approach.

But read them yourself, if you haven’t already, and let me know what you think.

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1 Comment

  1. Sheila says:

    “A thousand Splendid Suns” isn’t of the standard claimed, but rides on the back of “The Kite Runner”. I often experience disappointment with an acclaimed author who captivated me with my intial read. There are Rose Tremain, Ishiguru, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Atkinson books I’ve found wanting. The penalty of success.

    However, Tuesday’s radio 4 afternoon play, “English in Afghanistan” by Ryan Crag (listened to while scrubbing floor tiles for the first time this century) gave me an insight into the problems of “trying to improve a very foreign society” in a way that no news or documentary programme could.

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