Khaled Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, struck a national nerve on so many levels it would be unfair to expect his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books, 372 pages, $25.95), to score a similar triumph. The Kite Runner was like the quintessential Oprah's Book Club selection that never quite made Oprah's list. Published less than two years after 9/11, it described the history and culture of Afghanistan, a country most Americans knew nothing about even as their government waged its war on terror there (and had just expanded that war to include Iraq). Hosseini, who was born in Kabul and whose family was granted political asylum in the U.S. in 1980, could draw on personal experience as he narrated the life of a protagonist whose family, like his, flees to San Francisco to escape the Afghan revolution.
Readers will find A Thousand Splendid Suns a more diffuse, less tightly plotted work. This novel views Afghanistan's troubled history through the eyes of two Afghan women, who feel the daily privations of a nation at war more keenly than men but for whom, under Shari'a law, there is no real prospect of asylum.
Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman from Herat, is forced into a loveless marriage with a much older Kabul shoemaker. Laila, a blond-haired beauty from a progressive Kabul family, is later cornered into a marriage to the same man to conceal an unplanned pregnancy by a lost lover. Rivals at first, the two women become allies in the domestic war against their abusive husband, much as allegiances shift between various warlords in the civil war raging in the city and countryside around them.
Hosseini's ambition in A Thousand Splendid Suns is admirable, but the effect is not nearly so compelling as that in The Kite Runner. So much of the second novel is a harrowing disquisition on benighted Islamic marital customs that readers can't be blamed if their eyes glaze over at the blow-by-blow descriptions of one excoriating wife-beating after another. Hosseini's treatment of historic events outside the women's home, on the other hand, is sketchy, perhaps because he didn't witness most of the events he describes. His careful delineation of Afghanistan's various ethnic groups, a characteristic feature of The Kite Runner, is also largely missing from A Thousand Splendid Suns, as if he expects readers to remember who, for instance, the Heraza are from his previous book. Hosseini remains, for Americans at least, the premier voice on the Afghan experience, but that voice is now straining to find new things to say.
A Thousand Splendid Suns.