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A World Of Voices: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Alice Cresswell looks at the portrayal of women's marginalised existence in Afghanistan, in Hosseini’s moving novel.

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Image Credit: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is a novel about two women’s agonising desperation for freedom and a meaningful existence in Afghanistan during the late 20th Century. It is a heart-wrenching, at times upsetting, read but provides essential education on the topics explored. It is a book that will be imprinted into the back of  your mind for a long time.

Hosseini’s beautiful writing juxtaposes the backdrop of the jarring, dangerous and constantly changing political climate. Morality is twisted and left dismantled among the degradation of beloved cities and rights for women are completely stripped down. There is horror and pain everywhere but Hosseini highlights the light that can be found even in the darkest of times.

The story begins from Mariam’s perspective as a child born out of wedlock. The reader follows her fall into a dark spiral as a traumatic event pushes her into a forced marriage with a man named Rasheed at the age of fifteen. Thirty years her senior, his abuse, lies and manipulation and, as a result , her low self-worth are particularly unsettling to experience.

Forced marriage is a difficult and rare subject to explore in literature; it is still, nonetheless, an incredibly relevant and important issue in today’s society, with an average of 1,359 cases of forced marriages a year between 2011 and 2019 in the UK.  With this knowledge in mind, Hosseini’s descriptions feel even more raw. It was distressing to witness the mounds of pressure put onto a girl so young, to perform as a woman ‘should’, domestically, sexually and socially.

The worst part is seeing the increase in Mariam’s self-loathing as she ‘failed’ to meet Rasheed’s expectations. It was a disturbing power dynamic where she hated her husband, but also lived for moments of subtle gratitude or words of affirmation, perpetuating her fear and self-hatred.

On the other hand, one of my favourite parts of A Thousand Splendid Suns was the development of a beautiful friendship between the protagonists Mariam and Laila. Married to the same husband, and living under the same roof, it was inevitably a tense and remorseful relationship in the early stages. However, the two strong women grow dependent on each other’s company and their alliance becomes a powerful force as oppression smothers their political and domestic sphere.

Mariam soon becomes a maternal figure for Laila, and Laila respects and looks up to Mariam in a way she has never experienced before, filling the void in her heart. It was wonderful to see  how they remained unremittingly devoted to each other, no matter how many restrictions were put on them, or the torturous circumstances they found themselves in. It was surprising and refreshing to read a book written by a male author that put, at the forefront, an authentic female friendship.

The deeply depressing political climate opened my eyes to freedoms I take for granted every day. Under the Taliban, women could not leave the house on their own without being beaten. During lockdown we had a taste of what it feels like to have some personal liberties restricted, and without that freedom there was a marked increase in poor mental health. One can only imagine what it was like for Mariam, Laila and all the other women in Afghanistan at the time that they were in a state of eternal lockdown: prisoners in their own homes and puppets in society.

A particularly shocking scene was the segregation of male and female hospitals whereby the latter received little funding or space. Women were packed together in dirty rooms for hours, received treatment with no pain relief, and mothers had to give birth to their children in awful conditions. Women were totally marginalised, hidden away as reproduction machines to deliver into the world more obliging followers for the Taliban regime.

Hosseini was born in Afghanistan, moving to the US in 1980. For me, this added to the integrity and authenticity of the novel rather than feeling a projection of Western thinking. While the Taliban temporarily collapsed after 9/11, the post-war atmosphere and power vacuum after many years of fighting continued. While progress has been made, almost half of the voters in the 2005 election were women, the Taliban continue to cause unrest in this war-torn country. This knowledge made the ending of the novel feel slightly bittersweet.

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