Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

As I perused a lot of the year-end posts about various bloggers' favorites for 2007, I noticed that The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini came up on a lot of lists. Almost universally, it received very high recommendations and reviews. In fact, I still want to read it, although I have not.

Quite by accident, rather, a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini's second novel, came my way, and I looked forward to reading it with greater expectations than I probably should have had. I started slowly, giving myself plenty of time to read and digest, because I was sure this was going to be an exceptional book, and I wanted to get the most out of it. When I reached the halfway mark, I finally had to confess myself disappointed. There was potential and promise in the story, but I felt the writing was not at all compelling, and the story was positively mediocre.

Last year, I read a wonderful book of essays on literature by John Erskine (The Literary Discipline). In the preface to that book, he says:
I write here of literature as an art. Since I mean to exclude, as not art, many books of undoubted importance and of wide appeal, I must attempt at least to defend a distinction that to certain readers will seem arbitrary. A book may tell us of a life we already know about, or of a life we as yet do not know; the pleasure it gives us will be of recognition or of curiosity satisfied. Of course no books fall absolutely into one or the other of such extremes, but it is fairly accurate to say that every successful book does give us information, a new experience, or brings back an old experience to recognize. Though both kinds of books may be equally well written, we are inclined to ask only instruction from the one kind, but permanent enjoyment from the other. One is a document in history or sociology, in ethics or psychology; the other, as I understand it, is a work of art. (Emphasis mine)

I am going to be arbitrary, too, and contend that this book is "not art," although it is worth reading as a document, so to speak, of culture and history.

If you removed the basic story in A Thousand Splendid Suns from Afghanistan, which has a contemporary relevance and is a subject of curiosity to most of us, it would be unexceptionable.

I must be entirely just, and say that the second half of the book was better than the first. The story grew more compelling because the characters (some of them) finally became more than wooden puppets. There were a few plot revelations that were truly stunning. I enjoyed the second part enough to feel that my judgment of "mediocre" at the halfway point was not entirely justified.

And yet. I have no real interest in rereading this book, ever. The characters did not live and breath for me, except in flashes, here and there. I think Khaled Hosseini's writing is uneven--mostly unremarkable, with a few pages here and there rising out of the morass to stand out as very well done. And yet, I do believe this book would be classified by Erskine as a document that tells us something about life in Afghanistan, rather than about something the common experience of mankind.

And I realize that I have said nothing about the story at all! A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women, married to the same brutish man, in modern Afghanistan. One of the most brutal realities in the book is the dates as they appear--the 1970's, the 1980's, the 1990's--this is very recent history, and yet so remote, so medieval, so primitive. Could there be a country in this modern age that makes laws forbidding women from showing their faces on the streets, or even walking there without a male relative to escort them? Apparently, there could.

I don't want to give the story away, but the only bright spot in the story is the friendship that develops between two women trapped in a hopeless situation.

In spite of what I've written here, I would still read with interest, but perhaps not such high expectations, Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner if the opportunity arises. While it may not be in the halls of fame for centuries to come, there is a place for books like this, and I'm not sorry I read it.


At 5:30 PM , Blogger Laura said...

I'm about a third of the way through this book. Like you, I have The Kite Runner, but have not yet read it. A friend loaned me A Thousand Splendid Suns and *suggested* that I read it. I asked if it was really good and she said, "no, but it's worth reading." She also said she found it "friendlier" reading than The Kite Runner, but finished by saying that reading both of the books made her weary of Afghanistan... .

I'm already thinking that if one changed the location to China it could be an Amy Tan or a Pearl Buck plot. Or if India, Vikram Seth. The story does seem rather familiar.

I enjoyed your review, and am glad you selected this book this week!

At 12:27 AM , Blogger Framed said...

I'm with you. I wasn't thrilled with this book and now I hesitate to read "The Kite Runner." I have heard it is the better of the two, but still.

At 1:31 AM , Blogger Shelly Roszak said...

I usually agree with your assessment of literature, but I have to disagree on this one. I loved both "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns". They both opened up a part of the world that was closed for me. Are they great literature, to be placed beside Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope? No, but I definitely consider them "living books" because I now understand the political and culture landscape of Afghanistan.


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