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.
Powell's Books presents Khaled Hosseini at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234. 7 pm Tuesday, June 12. $18.50, includes admission and a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns.