book review

book review

Postby anamad » Mon May 21, 2012 8:14 pm

One Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Housseini
Review by Amanda Derry April 2012

Initially, I was not sure whether I would enjoy this book and felt sceptical as I started to read but I gradually became more engrossed in it until, by the end I was hooked. The main theme of the novel to me is womanhood and through Miriam and Laila we see how women have been treated in Afghanistan since the nineteen seventies when under Soviet rule. There is a lot of shame surrounding Miriam due to her illegitimate birthright and her father Jahid will only acknowledge her in secret. When she goes to visit his house, expecting to be welcomed, she finds herself sleeping outside on the street all night. When it is too late, Jahid realises he has wronged his daughter and amidst the wars and losses he has endured, Miriam's illegitimacy really does not matter. Nana says men will point their fingers accusingly at Miriam – it is a very male orientated judgemental society, with women placed as the victims. Perhaps it is the influence of the Koran that dictates gender attitudes and results in a very repressive sexual outlook in their society. Women are forced to cover themselves up with a burqa – when Miriam wears one she ironically feels it offers her protection as it covers her shame. Later when Laila is also forced by Rasheed to wear a burqa, she feels safer when she goes out. Even the female doctor in the only women's hospital where Laila goes to give a caesarean birth, has to wear a burqa when working and operating in deprived and inhumane conditions. The Taliban dictate that women outdoors have to be accompanied by a man, otherwise they are beaten and women trying to escape their marriages are caught by the police and taken back to their husbands, whatever their circumstances. Culture and entertainment are forbidden. Women are largely slaves to the house and child rearing and are forbidden to work. There are no women's rights and I found it shocking as a Western woman to read about this fact. I realised how lucky I am to have the facilities and opportunities available in my society. In the nineteen eighties Laila experiences an educational freedom encouraged by her Father. Laila finds sexual exploration with Tariq - although her relationship is disapproved of by her Mother, but when the Taliban assert control in the nineties Laila finds herself in the same situation as Miriam.

Miriam, then Laila, are forced into marriage with Rasheed. Rasheed is perhaps, what you would expect – he is fat, ugly, aggressive and ignorant and the worst kind of man for a young middle Eastern woman to be betrothed to. As he has lost his son, he is obsessed by having another one and emphasis is placed on the importance of sons in Afghan society rather than girls - Rasheed does not take notice of Assiz when she is born but dotes on his son Zalia when he is later introduced. Is Rasheed a product of his society which encourages men to abuse women and treat them as lesser beings? I wonder if Rasheed would be the same if he lived in Western society – however, his behaviour in Afghanistan is approved of by the authorities. Rasheed has a humorous and even pitiable side that one can warm towards. However, he transfigures into a monster when he violently beats Miriam and Laila for trying to escape from him and locks them in a room for days. When I acknowledged the extent of Rasheed's evil I could not sympathize with him and felt relieved when Miriam killed him, as this was the only way they could escape. However, of course, the consequences of Rasheed's death will tragically befall on Miriam and she knows the male dominated court will not be lenient on her for the years of oppression she has endured with Rasheed. Although Miriam is a victim at the beginning of the book, she develops strength and hope through Laila and when she is executed she seems to represent the repression of all women, which I found very moving.

The novel involves a love story between Laila and Tariq, whereby they choose each other within an egalitarian relationship. As a teenager Tariq is a colourful, brooding and sexy character with an amputated leg. Laila and Tariq have a traditional 'Western' romantic, passionate relationship and care for each other. War causes the lovers to separate and after a bomb blast Laila is introduced to Rasheed's abode where she has no choice but to stay. Laila thinks Tariq has died but he returns later on in the story and they ultimately marry. However, I think the book is essentially a love story between Laila and Miriam as we observe how their relationship develops. When Laila is introduced to Rasheed's household, she encounters antagonism and jealousy from Miriam as Miriam feels threatened by her presence as the new, favoured wife. Miriam and Laila eventually bond over Laila's daughter Assiz. They relate to each other as they are both under Rasheed's oppression and hate him as much. When the household is poverty stricken, Laila has to take Assiz to an orphanage and risks beatings to go out and see her. Miriam develops a very strong bond with Assiz, perhaps in place of the child she never has. Through Laila's love and companionship, Miriam's soul evolves and she discovers an inner life which rescues her from the deprived one she has known. When Rasheed discovers that Tariq has visited the house, he tries to kill Laila. He has been responsible through lies, for keeping Laila and Tariq apart. Miriam's love for her friend causes her to defend Laila and kill Rasheed. Miriam has found happiness through Laila and her children – Miriam's life has not been wasted. Ultimately, Miriam's death could be a triumph as she has overcome her difficulties to find fulfilment and has given Laila a new, hopeful life with Tariq and her children Assiz and Zalia. Laila becomes pregnant and, if the baby is a girl, she will call her Miriam.

The novel examines the suffering of women, but also of men under the dogmatic regime and war conditions. In the two thousands Tariq relates to Laila how he was put into a war refugee camp and imprisoned in jail. Tariq is not old but is weary and shell shocked like the rest of Afghanistan. Laila and Tariq engage in a dispute as he thinks the Americans will rescue their society and vanquish the Taliban, but Laila feels that war has just resulted in loss of her family, friends and innocent civilians; the novel leads to a political debate on whether war is justified. Tariq bonds with Zalia after Zalia accepts the absence of his beloved father (Laila will never tell him the truth about Rasheed's end) and Tariq becomes a father to the sensitive and thoughtful Assiz. The family go back to Kabul and return to the orphanage that Assiz was put into. Laila renovates the orphanage and operates it with the kindly owner who took care of Assiz, despite the meagre resources he was given. Laila goes to Herat to visit the shack where Miriam was brought up by Nana. She sits in the derelict house and imagines that Miriam is a girl and talking to her. Laila is given a box from the son of Miriam's old friend. The box contains money and a letter saying how sorry Jahid felt about how he treated Miriam. Jahid is also a product of his society which made him shun Miriam. Perhaps we are all like the characters in One Thousand Splendid Suns whose lives are dictated to by the society they live in. However, there is opportunity to gain awareness and rise beyond upbringings and tragedies to find happiness.

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