Monday, 23 July 2018

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Khaled Hosseini A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007)
I recently swung back into the orbit of my long lost Aunt Lynda who moved to Australia in 1973, never to be heard from again until some time last year when my wife found her on a genealogical website. We've since exchanged numerous emails, caught up in so much as that it's possible to catch up with someone you don't remember in any detail, and then she sent me this book. I'd sent her a couple of mine, partially due to their having covered some common familial ground, and I think she felt she should send something in return, which wasn't necessary but has been nevertheless appreciated. I'm sending you a book, she wrote in an email, and naturally I was a little worried that it might turn out to be something weird or puzzling, but it seems she read me very well from my emails and essays because this was right up my street; and even better, it's not the sort of book I might ordinarily have picked up, through having the look of an airport blockie in conjunction with the recommendation of Richard and Judy.

Khaled Hosseini wrote The Kite Runner. I saw the film without really realising it had been based on a novel, but that was a while ago and I can't recall anything about it beyond an impression of it having been good. A Thousand Splendid Suns explores the same cultural territory, using its characters as both lens and barometer to the political landscape of Afghanistan from the fall of its monarchy through to the rise of the Taliban.

Beyond having watched The Looming Tower about a month ago, I wouldn't claim to be particularly informed on what's been going on with Islam over the last couple of decades, at least not beyond understanding that whatever gammon-faced little Englanders may have to say on the subject will be inherently worthless by definition. This novel has therefore been quite an eye-opener. It is in many ways one of the bleakest, most crushing things I've ever read, not least because it's clear that these stories have happened to somebody even if we're reading a fictionalised narrative. The tale follows the largely miserable existence of one Mariam, born illegitimate and into extreme poverty, then sent to Kabul to be married off to Rasheed - twenty years her senior and mostly unpleasant - so as to save her biological father from disgrace. She fails to deliver unto Rasheed a son, so he takes a second wife, Laila who is fifteen and whose family have just been blown up, and all against the backdrop of fundamentalist medieval shitheads taking charge…

The horror is relentless, one beating after another, and each moment of respite serving mainly as a breather before another turn of the screw and it all gets worse; and yet it's bearable because the story is told from the very personal perspectives of the two women as they try to keep going against insurmountable odds, and Hosseini instils everything with that peculiar human optimism - or at least the ability to endure the suffering - which keeps us hoping for something better even when we can actually read the small print on the side of the bomb. Most impressive is how the novel communicates that its world - the one in which anonymous brown people are routinely bulldozed into the rubble as part of some larger powerplay - is not just something on the telly, but an atrocity which ultimately affects us all, and which we need to understand. In other words, it renders Afghanistan as something familiar, and very close to home, because we're all human - despite what the gammons may believe - and we have a lot more in common than we may have realised.

To trot out a cliché, I couldn't stop reading. The writing is simple and direct, communicating beautifully without dumbing down for the sake of twats on beaches or beside swimming pools. A Thousand Splendid Suns spends four-hundred pages punching two women in the face, and yet somehow leaves us feeling that there is hope to be found even in the most terrible situation. It's a peculiar combination of things, a bestseller which nevertheless reads as though it could have been published by Philip Best's Amphetamine Sulphate imprint. What a strange fucking world we live in.

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