In the wake of his mega-successful The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini has returned with a second novel that is even better than the first. This story of Afghan women (who were almost completely overlooked in The Kite Runner) is told through the experiences of Mariam and Laila, co-wives (is that the term?) who could not be more different. Mariam was the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, whose illusions about her father are destroyed when he sends her far from her beloved home. Laila is much younger, the child of a teacher and a sophisticated woman, whose early dreams of schooling and a career are destroyed by war.
Through a variety of circumstances, both Mariam and Laila marry Rasheed, a traditionalist who demands that his wives wear the full burqa covering and have no contact with other men. Mariam, unable to bear children, is the target of Rasheed’s rage and abuse, while Laila, who tries to protect her, increasingly triggers his ire. There are no surprises here for anyone who is aware of the status of women in the traditional Muslim world, but Hosseini does detail in visceral and disturbing ways the near-hatred men have for them.
The historic background of the story runs from the time of the Communist overthrow of the traditional Afghan king to the establishment of the international force that is still struggling to re-create Afghanistan. Encompassing the Soviet invasion, the mujahedeen victory and subsequent civil war, the coming of the Taliban, and all the miseries of the Afghan people, the novel becomes somewhat episodic, which may be its greatest shortcoming. But the themes of friendship, sacrifice, and love of the land and people continue from The Kite Runner, and One Thousand Splendid Suns ends on a redemptive note.