A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008)

I haven’t read a book this quickly since Into Thin Air, which I read in 2 days. This one took me about 4 days. What was so compelling about it? It’s hard to not keep reading when tragedy and suffering are around every corner!  Especially when it’s women who are suffering. Women at the hands of men, and things men do to mankind.

This is a story about the choices people make, the actions they take or don’t take, and the choices made for them; it’s about how the world around them keeps moving, sometimes in their favor, sometimes not. It’s also a story about the world of men/mankind and politics and mankind’s penchant for causing suffering over ideological claims. This is a story that is trying to tell the reader about real people whose everyday lives are affected directly, and yet not, by the turmoil of the world around them. It is a very sad story. But it is a happy one.

I knew I would be pulled into this novel when within the first 20-or-so-pages, tears came to my eyes.  This novel reminds me a lot of The Grapes of Wrath, and the choice Rosasharn makes in the end. As a matter of fact, this entire novel, to me, is permeated by that same pathos that Steinbeck is trying to convey through Rosasharn’s actions.  It is a reminder of the perseverance of women and the lengths to which they are willing to go to take care of their children, their friends, their loved ones, their fellow man.

This is a novel I would love to send out to people with a note attached saying: “This is what mothers go through for their children.” I am not a mother (yet) but I feel closer to the idea of motherhood than I ever have been. It is a scary thought, just to consider the motherhood option, much less being a mother in a war-torn country, where bombs have been raining down since the 1980s, and oppression inside the home, for some, has been a mainstay for time immemorial.  But in many ways, motherhood in this novel is a blessing. It is a way to find and create unconditional love. That is motherhood. Unconditional love and the endurance of suffering.  Motherhood is suffering from the beginning if you think about it: birth is painful. Love hurts and causes suffering. Death hurts and causes suffering. Life is suffering. Motherhood is life. Motherhood is suffering.

Rosasharn and Laila have a lot in common. Rosasharn breastfeeds a dying stranger to give him nourishment when she can give literally nothing else to the world. But she can give life, and she does without flinching, without hesitating, without being asked. And Laila endures the unimaginable in her unanesthetized caesarian delivery of Zalmai. All for life. All for the love of life. All hard to believe because “we” have not had the opportunity to be faced with such options. This is the core. This is the base the ethicists refer to. This is the factor-X we attempt to understand and describe. It is there, when all else is stripped away and there are no other choices to be made. But choice is still present.

I feel sorry for the women in this novel. They have been exploited and abused by men. But some of the men in this novel have redeeming qualities, and the choices they have made have been tainted by cultural expectations.  Rasheed represents the bottom of the barrel (selfish, patriarchal, violent, hiding behind the comforts of cultural convenience, oppressive), Jalil represents a step above that (compassionate with the unfortunate circumstance of having internalized certain cultural limitations), and Tariq represents the ideal: love for love’s sake, unconditional, enduring, long-suffering, truly compassionate.  The reader sees them all: the ‘regular’ men of the Afghanistan described by Hosseini. The reader doesn’t get a good glimpse of the men behind the wars, but then again, the bombs and the killings are just about all we need to understand them.

I think it’s important that we see regular people doing regular things, whatever they may be for their particular place and time. These are my favorite types of novels because regular people read these books and glean something out of them to use in their regular, everyday lives.

What do I take from this book? A sense of comfort that when I disagree with my husband, he doesn’t punch me square in the chest and shove a pistol in my mouth. A sense of anxiety that though my personal reality is basically thriving, the world around me is moving at such a pace that its suffering isn’t noticed over the speeches and the outbursts and the rhetoric. A sense of resolution about motherhood: that whatever suffering is required, will be endured for the love of life and of love.  A sense of understanding that suffering is part of the human condition.

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