There was a period of many months when my standard answer to, “What good books have you read lately?” was a simple three-word response: The Kite Runner. Even after I had long since read it, making it not a “lately” book at all, I’d still come back with the same answer.
I’ve tried to distinguish what moved me so much as a reader that I’d be so enamored of a book set in war-torn Afghanistan, told from the point of view of a man, and that was so desperately sad in places. I can only say Khaled Hosseini paints humanity in such simple, eloquent strokes, if you’re human, you can’t escape being drawn in: hook, line and sinker.
So I was fairly anxious to get my hands on A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini’s newest title, released just last month. My mom, an avid reader like me, got a copy the day it released and had it with her on the plane as we traveled together to my son’s graduation. Airline attendants would walk by, see the cover in her hands, and say something like, “Oooh! You’ve got it! When did you get it? Have you started it?” And for several minutes there was no talk of cabin service or $1 earphones or locating the exit nearest you, just chatter about The Kite Runner and the new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Mom finished the book a few days later and handed it over to me, beaming. I tried to finish the book I’d started while waiting for this one. I couldn’t do it. I set it aside after only a day and packed my bags for Afghanistan.
It was a trip I won’t soon forget.
As in The Kite Runner, Hosseini holds nothing back just because it’s ugly. War, civil unrest, terrorism, misogyny, hatred, fear, despondency — these aren’t pretty. But the world in which Hosseini’s characters are placed is the real world, not some made-up land where nothing ever seems to go right. I think that’s what grabs me in the tales Hosseini weaves: their realism. It’s easy to care about people who seem real. And that’s the hallmark of a great fiction writer: the ability to develop characters the reader cares about deeply. Passionately. Because they become real to you.
Splendid Suns chronicles the lives of two women, beginning with their separate childhood years and ending when their lives have been entwined with the unforgettable bonds of suffering and sacrifice. The setting, Afghanistan, is a character unto itself, as it was in The Kite Runner. It is like this impassive entity that refuses to intervene when it seems it should. “Make it stop!” I found myself saying to this faceless character, often. I could almost hear it saying back to me, “You make it stop,” which was of course impossible. This powerlessness was frustrating to me as the reader, but expertly used to the story’s advantage. I felt the powerlessness of the characters to change their circumstances. Even when they tried, they could not change them. I tasted this powerlessness on every page.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of tender beauty and grace in Splendid Suns. There were. That’s what kept me reading. And the ending is particularly satisfying. But like its older brother, A Thousand Splendid Suns is the kind of book that clings. Haunts. Permeates. Indwells. I long to write a book that would do the same.
I have a new answer to the question, “What good books have you read lately?” It is now a four-word answer.