A Thousand Splendid Suns is a 2007 novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, following the huge success of his bestselling 2003 debut The Kite Runner. Mariam, an illegitimate teenager from Herat, is forced to marry a shoemaker from Kabul after a family tragedy. Laila, born a generation later, lives a relatively privileged life, but her life intersects with Mariam's when a similar tragedy forces her to accept a marriage proposal from Mariam's husband.
|Author||Khaled HosseiniAlexandra Brioso|
|Publisher||Riverhead Books (and Simon & Schuster audio CD)|
|May 22, 2007|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback) and audio CD|
|Pages||384 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|ISBN||978-1-59448-950-1 (first edition, hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3608.O832 T56 2007|
Hosseini has remarked that he regards the novel as a "mother-daughter story" in contrast to The Kite Runner, which he considers a "father-son story". It continues some of the themes used in his previous work, such as familial dynamics, but instead focusing primarily on female characters and their roles in contemporary Afghan society.
A Thousand Splendid Suns was released on May 22, 2007, and received favorable widespread critical acclaim from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist, and became a number one New York Times Best Seller for fifteen weeks following its release. During its first week on sale, it sold over one million copies. Columbia Pictures purchased film rights in 2007, and a theatrical adaptation of the book premiered on February 1, 2017, at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, California.
- "Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
- Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
- One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
- And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls"
Hosseini explained "I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul, for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when I found this particular verse. I realized that I had found not only the right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase 'a thousand splendid suns,' which appears in the next-to-last stanza."
When asked what led him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women, Hosseini responded:
"I had been entertaining the idea of writing a story of Afghan women for some time after I'd finished writing The Kite Runner. That first novel was a male-dominated story. All the major characters, except perhaps for Amir's wife Soraya, were men. There was a whole facet of Afghan society which I hadn't touched on in The Kite Runner, an entire landscape that I felt was fertile with story ideas...In the spring of 2003, I went to Kabul, and I recall seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change. I remember watching them walking in pairs up the street, trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had brought them to that point...I spoke to many of those women in Kabul. Their life stories were truly heartbreaking...When I began writing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found myself thinking about those resilient women over and over. Though no one woman that I met in Kabul inspired either Laila or Mariam, their voices, faces, and their incredible stories of survival were always with me, and a good part of my inspiration for this novel came from their collective spirit."
"I hope the book offers emotional subtext to the image of the burqa-clad woman walking down a dusty street in Kabul."
—Khaled Hosseini in a 2007 interview.
Hosseini disclosed that in some ways, A Thousand Splendid Suns was more difficult to write than his first novel, The Kite Runner. He noted the anticipation for his second book when writing it, compared to The Kite Runner wherein "no one was waiting for it." He also found his second novel to be more "ambitious" than the first due to its larger cast of characters; its dual focus on Mariam and Laila; and its covering a multi-generational-period of nearly forty-five-years in total. However, he found the novel easier to write once he had begun, noting "as I began to write, as the story picked up the pace and I found myself immersed in the world of Mariam and Laila, these apprehensions vanished on their own. The developing story captured me and enabled me to tune out the background noise and get on with the business of inhabiting the world I was creating." The characters "took on a life of their own" at this point and "became very real for [him]".
Similar to The Kite Runner, the manuscript had to be extensively revised; with Hosseini ultimately rewriting the book five times before it was complete. The novel's anticipated release was first announced in October 2006, when it was described as a story about "family, friendship, faith and the salvation to be found in love".
On the outskirts of Herat, Mariam lives with her embittered mother, Nana, in a secluded hut. Born as a result of an extra-marital liaison between her mother and Jalil, a wealthy local businessman, the family lives outside of the city in order to avoid confronting Jalil's three wives and nine legitimate children. Nana resents Jalil for his mistreatment of her and his deceptive attitude towards Mariam, whom he visits every Thursday. On her fifteenth birthday, Mariam asks her father to take her to see Pinocchio at a cinema he owns and to introduce her to her siblings. Jalil promises to do so but when he does not come to pick her up, Mariam travels to Herat herself, against the wishes of her mother. When she arrives at her father's home, she is informed he is away on a business trip. After spending the night on the street outside Jalil's home, Mariam discovers that Jalil had been home the entire time. Heartbroken, Mariam returns home to find that Nana has hanged herself. Mariam is temporarily moved into Jalil's house, to the displeasure of his wives. They pressure Jalil to remove Mariam from their household. Jalil arranges for Mariam to marry Rasheed, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul thirty years her senior, and move to Kabul. Rasheed is initially kind to Mariam, but over the course of seven miscarriages, their relationship sours and he becomes increasingly abusive toward Mariam, angered by her inability to provide him a son.
Meanwhile, Mariam's young neighbor Laila grows up close to her father, an educated school teacher, but worries about her mother, who is deeply depressed following the death of her two sons fighting for the Mujahideen against the Soviets. Laila is close friends with Tariq, a local Pashtun boy with one leg, and a romance develops between them as they grow up. When Laila is fourteen, Afghanistan enters a civil war, and Kabul is bombarded by frequent rocket attacks. Tariq's family decide to leave the city, and while saying their good-byes, he and Laila have sex in a moment of passion. Shortly afterwards, Laila's family decide to also escape the city, but before they can, a rocket hits their home, killing Laila's parents and severely injuring Laila. Laila is taken in by Mariam and Rasheed, and as she recovers from her injuries, Rasheed begins courting her, to Mariam's dismay. One day, a man arrives at Rasheed's home to inform Laila that Tariq and his family died in a bomb blast on their way to Pakistan. Realizing that she is pregnant with Tariq's child, Laila agrees to marry Rasheed, convincing Rasheed that the child is his. Laila gives birth to a daughter, whom she names Aziza. Mariam initially treats Laila coldly, avoiding contact with her and Aziza. They eventually become friends, bonding over Rasheed's abuse of both of them after Aziza's birth. They form a close mother-daughter-like bond, weathering Rasheed's abuse and raising Aziza. One spring, Mariam and Laila attempt to escape from Rasheed, but are caught by the local police and returned to Rasheed. Rasheed punishes the two of them by beating them and nearly starving them to death.
The Taliban rise to power in Kabul and impose harsh rules on the local population, severely curtailing women's rights. Laila is forced to give birth to a son, Zalmai, via a Caesarian section without anaesthesia due to the local women's hospital being stripped of its supplies. Laila and Mariam struggle with raising Zalmai, whom Rasheed dotes on and favours over Aziza. During a drought, Rasheed's workshop burns down, and he is forced to take other jobs, worsening his mood and the abuse. Due to a lack of food, Rasheed forces Laila to send Aziza to an orphanage and refuses to accompany her to visit Aziza. Laila endures beatings from Taliban for travelling alone to visit Aziza.
One day, Tariq suddenly shows up on Laila's doorstep and reunites with Laila, much to her shock and joy. Tariq explains to Laila the events that lead him back to Kabul, and Laila realizes that Rasheed paid the man to lie to her about Tariq's death to convince her to marry him. Laila and Mariam agree to attempt to escape again, this time with Tariq's help. However, when Rasheed returns home from work, Zalmai informs Rasheed that Laila had a male visitor. Enraged, Rasheed begins a vicious beating and attempts to strangle Laila to death. To save Laila, Mariam kills Rasheed with a shovel. Stricken by guilt and knowing the authorities would be after them, Mariam decides to turn herself in to draw attention away from Laila and Tariq's escape with the children. Confessing the murder to the Taliban, Mariam is sentenced to public execution, and complies peacefully, glad that she has experienced true love and joy during the years she spent with Laila and the children.
Laila and Tariq successfully escape Afghanistan with the children and move to Murree, Pakistan, where they get married. After the fall of the Taliban, they decide to return to Kabul to be present for the rebuilding of Afghan society. They stop en route to Herat, where Laila visits the village where Mariam was raised. She meets with the son of a kindly mullah who taught Mariam, who gives her a box Jalil had entrusted to the family to give to Mariam, should she return to Herat. The box contains a videotape of Pinocchio, a sack of money, and a letter in which Jalil expresses his regret and love for Mariam, wishing he had fought for her and raised her as his legitimate child. The family return to Kabul and use the money to repair the orphanage Aziza had stayed in, and Laila works there as a teacher. She becomes pregnant with her third child, whom she intends to name Mariam if it is a girl.
Major Characters Edit
- Mariam, an ethnic Tajik born in Herat in 1959. The illegitimate child of Jalil and Nana, his housekeeper, she suffers shame throughout her life due to the circumstances of her birth, and is forced to marry a much older shoemaker and move to Kabul after her mother's death. Hosseini describes Mariam as "isolated in every sense of the word. She is a woman who is detached from the day-to-day norms of human existence. Really, she just wants a connection with another human being". Despite initially resenting Laila, she becomes a "friend and a doting alternative mother" to her through the "common hardship" of being married to the "abusive, psychologically imposing" Rasheed. Mariam kills Rasheed while defending Laila, for which she is publicly executed by the Taliban.
- Laila, an ethnic Tajik born in Kabul in 1978. The only surviving child of Hakim and Fariba after her older brothers die in the Afghan-Soviet War, she is raised by educated parents who educate her, first at school and later at home when Kabul becomes too dangerous. Compared to Mariam, Hosseini noted she "had a much more fulfilling relationship with her father, her [girlfriends] and her childhood friend, Tariq. She expected to finish school and is looking for personal fulfillment. These are two very different representations of women". Laila's life becomes tied with Mariam's when she is forced to marry Rasheed in order to protect herself and her unborn child after the death of her parents and supposed death of Tariq. This initially causes resentment from Mariam, who "[feels] her territory infringed upon". Despite this, "Laila becomes her daughter for all practical purposes" on account of the struggles and abuse they both experience during their marriage. At the end of the novel, Laila returns to Kabul becomes a schoolteacher at an orphanage.
- Rasheed, an ethnic Pashtun from Kabul who works as a shoemaker. During his first marriage, Rasheed sired a son who tragically died to drowning; it is suggested in the novel that this happened as a result of Rasheed being drunk while caring for him. Rasheed is deeply misogynistic, often subjecting his wives and 'daughter' Aziza to frequent physical, mental and emotional abuse. In spite of his horrific behavior toward women, Rasheed shows genuine love toward his son Zalmai, whom he dotes greatly. After suffering years of experiencing domestic abuse, Mariam bludgeons Rasheed to death with a shovel while he attempts to strangle Laila to death. Hosseini hoped to make a multi-layered character with Rasheed, noting "Rasheed's the embodiment of the patriarchal, tribal character. In writing him, I didn't want to write him as an irredeemable villain. He is a reprehensible person, but there are moments of humanity, such as his love for his son." Hosseini identified an encounter with an Afghan man who "had a very sweet, subservient wife" and had not yet informed her that he was planning to marry again" as an inspiration for the character.
- Tariq, an ethnic Pashtun born in Kabul in 1976 who grew up with Laila. He lost a leg to a landmine at the age of five. He and Laila evolve from close friends to lovers shortly before he flees Kabul with his family. As a refugee in Pakistan, Tariq suffers many tragedies: his father passes away from illness in the refugee camps, and Tariq ends up with a seven year prison sentence for inadvertently participating in drug trafficking. While imprisoned, Tariq's mother dies of exposure. After being freed from prison Tariq gains stable employment from a relative of a prisoner he befriended. Soon after gaining stable employment, Tariq reunites with Laila in Kabul. After Rasheed's death, Tariq and Laila leave for Pakistan and marry. Following the fall of the Taliban Tariq returns to Kabul with Laila, expecting to have a third child.
Supporting Characters Edit
- Nana, an ethnic Tajik from a village outside Herat. Initially betrothed to a local boy in her village, Nana's life trajectory greatly changes after "the jinn enters her body" shortly before marriage, causing her to have a seizure. The incident leaves her unmarriageable, and she eventually becomes a house servant for Jalil. She has an affair with Jalil, leading to the birth of her daughter Mariam. The scandal of the affair brings dishonour upon Jalil's wives and legitimate children, causing him to remove Nana and Mariam from his household and relocate them. This treatment causes Nana to become deeply bitter toward Jalil and his family. Embittered by the tragedies of her life, Nana often mentally and emotionally abuses Mariam, blaming her for her life's misfortune. After Mariam leaves the family home for the first time on her own to find Jalil on her fifteenth birthday, Nana hangs herself, believing that Mariam abandoned her.
- Mullah Faizullah, a local Sufi imam who teaches Mariam the Qur'an and supports her and Nana. He is one of the few people in Mariam's life who brings her comfort and joy, though they lose contact after Mariam is forced to marry Rasheed and move to Kabul. He dies of natural causes in 1989.
- Jalil, a local businessman in Herat who has three wives and nine (later ten) legitimate children, in addition to Mariam. While doting on Mariam, Jalil's reluctance to treat her like his legitimate children ultimately brings the both of them tragedy: his actions indirectly cause Mariam to lose her mother, and his decision to send Mariam away creates a permanent schism between the two that is never resolved. Before his death, he expresses deep regret for his treatment of Mariam, through a letter and various keepsakes that would have been given to her if she had ever returned to Herat. Mariam never receives these items; instead, Laila receives them in her stead after visiting Mariam's hometown.
- Hakim, Laila's father, a university educated man from Panjshir who works first as a teacher and then at a factory after the war. He is progressive and wishes for Laila to be educated and make her own decisions in life, going against traditional cultural values by urging Laila to prioritize her education over marriage. Initially in a loving marriage, Hakim's relationship with his wife Fariba sours after the loss of their sons and Hakim's lack of traditional masculinity. In spite of this, Hakim remains dedicated to Fariba, refusing to abandon her and leave Kabul even as many of their friends and neighbours do. He is killed in a rocket explosion alongside his wife Fariba, shortly after he manages to convince her to flee the city due to increasingly intense conflict.
- Fariba, Laila's mother, originally from Panjshir. She briefly meets Mariam when she first arrives in Kabul, and is depicted as a cheerful woman. Her disposition is permanently changed after her two sons, Ahmad and Noor, leave their home to fight and are later killed in the Afghan-Soviet war: Fariba becomes deeply depressed and obsessed with the loss of her sons. This obsession blots out her relationship with her husband, with whom she often fights and treats poorly, and her relationship with her daughter, whom she often neglects. Fariba's obsession with her deceased sons causes her and her remaining family to remain in Kabul long after many of their friends and neighbours flee from the constant danger in the city. She is later killed in a rocket explosion alongside her husband Hakim, shortly after he manages to convince her to flee the city due to increasingly intense conflict.
- Hasina, one of Laila's childhood friends. She has a close relationship with Laila, often teasing her. Hasina leaves Kabul after she is betrothed to one of her cousins, who plans on marrying her and moving them to Germany.
- Giti, one of Laila's childhood friends. She has a close relationship with Laila, with whom she feels comfortable gushing about boys to. Giti is tragically killed when a stray rocket hits her, blowing her body into bits.
- Aziza, the illegitimate daughter of Laila and Tariq, born in 1993 in Kabul. When Laila learns of Tariq's alleged death, she marries Rasheed in order to hide Aziza's illegitimacy. Aziza's birth marks Laila's fall from favour with Rasheed and leads to the friendship between Mariam and Laila. During a famine, Aziza temporary is placed into an orphanage so she can be fed.
- Zalmai, the legitimate son of Laila and Rasheed, born in 1997 in Kabul. Laila initially considers aborting him due to him being Rasheed's biological child. Zalmai idolises his father despite his abuse of Laila and Mariam. Zalmai remains unaware that Mariam killed Rasheed and is led to believe he has left Kabul. Zalmai does not initlally respect Tariq, but by the end of the novel, appears to be accepting him as a father figure.
When asked about common themes in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini replied:
"Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a prominent theme. I did not intend this, but I am keenly interested, it appears, in the way parents and children love, disappoint, and in the end honor each other. In one way, the two novels are corollaries: The Kite Runner was a father-son story, and A Thousand Splendid Suns can be seen as a mother-daughter story."
He considers both novels to be "love stories" in the sense love "draws characters out of their isolation, that gives them the strength to transcend their own limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating acts of self-sacrifice".
Women in Afghanistan Edit
Hosseini visited Afghanistan in 2003, and "heard so many stories about what happened to women, the tragedies that they had endured, the difficulties, the gender-based violence that they had suffered, the discrimination, the being barred from active life during the Taliban, having their movement restricted, being banned essentially from practicing their legal, social rights, political rights". This motivated him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women.
The Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley suggested that "the central theme of A Thousand Splendid Suns is the place of women in Afghan society", pointing to a passage in which Mariam's mother states, "learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam."
In the book, both Mariam and Laila are forced into accepting marriage to Rasheed, who requires them to wear a burqa long before it is implemented by law under the Taliban. He later becomes increasingly abusive. A Riverhead Trades Weekly review states that the novel consistently shows the "patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status."
In the first week following its release, A Thousand Splendid Suns sold over one million copies, becoming a number-one New York Times bestseller for fifteen weeks. Time magazine's Lev Grossman placed it at number three in the Top 10 Fiction Books of 2007, and praised it as a "dense, rich, pressure-packed guide to enduring the unendurable." Jonathan Yardley said in the Washington Post "Book World", "Just in case you're wondering whether Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns is as good as The Kite Runner, here's the answer: No. It's better."
A Thousand Splendid Suns received significant praise from reviewers, with Publishers Weekly calling it "a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan" and USA Today describing the prose as "achingly beautiful". Lisa See of The New York Times attributed the book's success to Hosseini "[understanding] the power of emotion as few other popular writers do". Natasha Walter from The Guardian wrote, "Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily."
Cathleen Medwick gave the novel a highly positive review in O, the Oprah Magazine:
"Love may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider the war-ravaged landscape of Afghanistan. But that is the emotion—subterranean, powerful, beautiful, illicit, and infinitely patient—that suffuses the pages of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. As in his best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner, Hosseini movingly examines the connections between unlikely friends, the fissures that open up between parents and children, the intransigence of quiet hearts."
The New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani wrote a more critical review, describing the opening as "heavy-handed" and early events in the novel as "soap-opera-ish". Despite these objections, she concluded, "Gradually, however, Mr. Hosseini's instinctive storytelling skills take over, mowing down the reader's objections through sheer momentum and will. He succeeds in making the emotional reality of Mariam and Laila's lives tangible to us, and by conjuring their day-to-day routines, he is able to give us a sense of what daily life was like in Kabul — both before and during the harsh reign of the Taliban." Similarly, Yvonne Zipp of The Christian Science Monitor concluded that A Thousand Splendid Suns was ultimately "a little shaky as a work of literature".
The depictions of the lead female characters, Mariam and Laila, were praised by several commentators. John Freeman from The Houston Chronicle found them "enormously winning" while Carol Memmott from USA Today further described them as "stunningly heroic characters whose spirits somehow grasp the dimmest rays of hope". Medwick summed up the portrayals: "Mariam, branded as a harami, or bastard, and forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fifteen, and Laila, a beauty groomed for success but shrouded almost beyond recognition by repressive sharia law and the husband she and Mariam share. The story, epic in scope and spanning three decades, follows these two indomitable women whose fortunes mirror those of their beloved and battered country—'nothing pretty to look at, but still standing'—and who find in each other the strength they need to survive."
Jennifer Reese from Entertainment Weekly dubbed Rasheed "one of the most repulsive males in recent literature". Lisa See wrote that, with the exception of Tariq, "the male characters seem either unrelentingly evil or pathetically weak" and opined, "If a woman wrote these things about her male characters, she would probably be labeled a man-hater."
Columbia Pictures owns the movie rights to the novel. Steven Zaillian finished writing the first draft of the screenplay in 2009 and was also slated to direct; Scott Rudin had signed on as a producer. In May 2013, studios confirmed a tentative release date of 2015, although as of 2022 the film remains unproduced.
The first theatrical adaptation of the novel premiered in San Francisco, California, on February 1, 2017. It is co-produced by the American Conservatory Theater and Theatre Calgary. The theatrical adaptation condenses the novel for length, beginning with the deaths of Hakim and Fariba and telling earlier sections (such as Mariam's childhood and Laila and Tariq's romance) through flashbacks.
A television limited series adaptation of the novel is in works by One Community.
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"100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. 2019-11-05. Retrieved 2019-11-10.
The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
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- "One Community Acquires 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' By 'The Kite Runner' Author Khaled Hosseini For Limited Series". Deadline Hollywood. June 3, 2021.
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