On “A Thousand Splendid Suns”

1. I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini this week.

Each review on the back of the book tries to capture the book in a theme or two. USA Today calls it a novel about “the dimmest rays of hope,” the Los Angeles Times says it’s about “the intimacy of family and village life,” Oprah suggests its pages are suffused with “love—subterranean, powerful, beautiful, illicit, and infinitely patient.”

Of course, the book is about all of these things, and more, and that’s what makes it as emotionally rich as it is. A hundred people could read it and each come out the other side with a unique account of what story is being told — a different thread that stands out from the book’s fabric.

If I had to reduce it to a single motif, though, I would say A Thousand Splendid Suns is a book about sacrifice. (I think a lot of good stories are, because most of them are about a character’s yearning pursuit of some lofty goal, and yearning can only really be measured when the character gives something up — apples and branches, in The Giving Tree; dignity, in The God of Small Things; life, in Titanic.) In an explicit sense, the book builds towards one protagonist (Mariam) sacrificing her life for the freedom of the other (Laila). And more subtly, most of the characters’ other adversities are edged with hope. A man in a refugee camp takes a blanket from a child to give to his sick mother — trading virtue for survival. A character withstands an abusive relationship that gives her a son she loves.

2. Each plot point toes the line on depicting struggle without glorification. It doesn’t make sense for a novel about hardship to lack sacrifice, because almost definitional to hardship is scarcity — the reality that not everything can be had, and tradeoffs must be made. But too much moralisation of these tradeoffs makes them seem honourable, desirable even. It emphasises the heroism of individual people over the injustice of a system that demanded heroism as a prerequisite to survival. (This is the same problem many people have with Remembrance Day that I think sometimes gets obscured by zealous forms of progressivism. The problem isn’t really that remembrance is pro-war or anti-minorities. The problem is that we don’t say explicitly enough, alongside our remembrances, that we would have preferred a world in which people needn’t have died.) 

It’s immensely challenging to capture the true weight of difficult decisions without glorifying them — most war-related media fails, in my opinion — but I think Hosseini largely manages. In one of the book’s final scenes, Mariam allows herself to be executed by the Afghani government so that Laila’s family can survive. Mariam is walking towards her executioner. Hosseini writes: “As she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of [life]. She wished she could see Laila again, wished to hear the clangor of her laugh, to sit with her once more for a pot of chai.” Hosseini recognises the courage of the voluntary march to death, but also all of the grief that accompanies her choice, the mourning of what her life could have been. 

So many books and movies don’t capture the softness of grief in this way. Jack’s last words in Titanic are focused on valiantly encouraging Rose to survive the sinking and live a fulfilling life. This is endearing, and probably a good cinematic choice given that (a) Jack’s choice is less premeditated and thus more emotional than Mariam’s and (b) films can’t peer into a character’s head in quite the same way as a novel with a third-person omniscient narrator. But the scene does skim over some of the complexity inherent to difficult choices, and some of the wonderings over what other decisions might have yielded. In that sense, I appreciated Hosseini’s ability to portray a more messy and layered emotional experience.

3. Books about sacrifice, ultimately, are nicer than ones about loss. Many, many unspeakably bad things happen in A Thousand Splendid Suns. But because the tragedy gives way to something greater, the novel doesn’t feel as tragic in tone as other novels that are similarly tragic in content. Yanaghira’s A Little Life, for instance, strikes me as probably the saddest book I’ve read. And while it’s beautiful and one of my favourite novels of all time, there are occasional points where the tragedy feels almost garish: the protagonist is thrown into devastating, graphically depicted horrors that seem statistically rare. The overall impression is slightly vulgar and not as real. (Neither vulgarity nor unrealness are inherently bad, but both are jarring.) In other words, books like A Little Life are at times oversaturated with loss. I think this leaves some of their tragedies completely without function, literary or otherwise.

A Thousand Splendid Suns felt different. The meaning in the characters’ lives is complemented rather than punctuated by their suffering. Often the characters have a clearer sense of intention: their sacrifices are deliberate, and thus speak more to their character than arbitrary circumstance. And even when they aren’t being deliberate, the characters try to view loss as part of a trajectory towards something better. The book concludes with one of the main characters, Laila, describing a game where her family competes to come up with names for their unborn child. “The game only involves male names,” the final few lines of the book read. “If it’s a girl, Laila has already named her [Mariam].” It’s a simple but powerful illustration of how meaning can grow from things given up. Maybe it’s an imperfect approximation of real-life bad things — we don’t get something good out of all bad things, or maybe even most of them. And yet, there’s an underlying optimism to the book’s conclusion — and to each thread along the way — that is both vivid and subtly uplifting.

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