There may be nothing more elusive in publishing than a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon. Set the book someplace where English isn't the first language, make your main character a coward, and throw in so much suffering that even Oprah might cry "Enough!" and, well, there's pretty much only one recent novel that's pulled off that hat trick: "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini.
The 2003 novel took a familiar tale of redemption – complete with archetypes such as the distant father, the missing mother, the bookish son, and the noble servant – and translated it through Afghan culture and history. There are lots of statements such as "Afghans cherish custom, but abhor rules," and "We're a melancholic people, we Afghans, aren't we?... We give in to loss, to suffering, accept it as a fact of life, even see it as a necessity." Suffering is certainly seen as a necessity to the plot, as an Afghan man tries to atone for sins against his childhood best friend. The writing is accessible, and there are enough journalistic touches to make Americans feel as if they're getting to know the "real" Afghanistan. Despite its grim story line, the combination fired the imaginations of US readers: To date, the novel has sold more than 3 million copies in the US, and a movie is scheduled for release later this year.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, his second novel, Hosseini tries to go behind the burqa to describe the lives of two women in Kabul. In an interview with USA Today, Hosseini, who also works as an envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, explained his motivation. "I went to Afghanistan in 2003 and met lots of women and heard so many sad, inspiring, and horrific stories…. I hope the book offers emotional subtext to the image of the burqa-clad woman walking down a dusty street in Kabul."
These are obviously noble motives, but the fact that Hosseini began by thinking of his main characters as "other" – to the extent of wondering "about their inner lives, whether they had ever had girlish dreams" – is a huge hurdle. It's one that, as I read Part 1, I was concerned he wouldn't be able to leap. "Where "The Kite Runner" saved its most unbelievable plot contrivances for the third act, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" gets them out of the way up front. This is unfortunate, since the novel improves substantially, especially after Hosseini switches narrators.
Mariam, like Hassan in "The Kite Runner," is the illegitimate child of a rich man and a servant. She grows up in a tiny hut with no one to talk to except her bitter mother, Nana; a kind mullah; and her father, who comes once a week to take her fishing. Her mother forbids her to go to school, saying, "What's the sense in schooling a girl like you? It's like shining a spittoon." The only lesson an Afghan woman needs, Nana tells her, is how to endure. When Mariam asks, "Endure what?" Nana replies, "Oh, don't you fret about that. There won't be any shortage of things."
When she turns 15, Mariam tries to visit her father at the house where he lives with his three wives and nine other children. She isn't allowed through the door. After a night on the doorstep, she returns home to find that her mother has hanged herself. (Uh, sure.) Cinderella only had one wicked stepmother; Mariam gets three.
Within a week of her mother's death, they've married her off to a Kabul shoemaker three times her age who beats her and forces her to wear a burqa decades before the Taliban required it.
This section sags from the weight of heavy-handed preaching and obvious symbolism. For example, when her mother swears at Mariam, Hosseini intones, "She understood then, what Nana meant, that a harami was an unwanted thing; that she, Mariam, was an illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance." OK, good to have that clarified by Page 4.
But if readers can hang on 90 more pages, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" takes a turn for the better with the introduction of Laila, a teacher's daughter and a neighbor of Mariam and Rasheed, the horrible husband.
Hosseini is on much firmer ground with Laila's family of liberal intellectuals. The characters are recognizable people, the dialogue has snap – there's even a little humor, courtesy of Tariq, Laila's best friend.
Kabul itself also becomes a major character, as war against the Soviets is replaced by internecine warfare between factions of the mujihadeen. Laila's parents are killed by a rocket, and Rasheed pulls her from the rubble. Evidently believing in the "Finders, keepers" rule, he takes the teen as a second wife. The two women eventually forge an alliance against the monster at home and the chaos raging outside.
Then the Taliban arrive, with their list of rules banning everything from kites and parakeets to women's laughter. (That last isn't really a problem for Mariam. As she notes, life under the Taliban isn't so very different than life with Rasheed – at least, at first.)
Hosseini has aimed high with his second novel. In addition to telling a gripping story, he wants to convey 30 years of Afghan history and praise the endurance of the women of Kabul in the face of titanic oppression.
If "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is a little shaky as a work of literature, at least a reader feels that Hosseini has more at stake than where the book ends up on the bestseller list.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.