Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 3: A Thousand Splendid Suns

For this third segment in my mini-series, I am taking an even bolder step and adding Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) to my list of Classics.  It's just a baby in literature years, and I know many people might say that I am too quick to make this assessment.  Perhaps they're right, but there are many qualities in this book that I believe have made it earn its right to be in the list.

Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, has thus far received more attention than his second piece.  Because of its popularity, (and the Hollywood movie I refuse to watch), I acknowledge that The Kite Runner may be placed on a list of "Classic Literature" instead of A Thousand Splendid Suns.  However, I believe that the latter novel brings in great themes and elements that the first one lacks, surpassing it in literary genius.

One of the primary features in A Thousand Splendid Suns is that it focuses on two women.  This is particularly interesting because the author is a man, and male authors do not often create female protagonists.  Yet I feel that his presentation of women is not only fair, but it displays important, third-wave feminist principles.  The first principle it presents is that women are socially oppressed.  This is particularly clear in Afghanistan from a Western perspective, but the key here is that this is NOT a Western perspective!  Earlier feminist theory would suggest that Afghanistan was in need of taking on Western culture to fix its problem of inequality.  However, the Afghan culture is maintained throughout this novel, despite the problems it presents.  In my reader experience, I did not feel that it was a condemnation of Afghan culture, but a condemnation of mistreating others.  The characters' solution was not just escape from the country all together, for - SPOILER ALERT - they returned to it after the fall of the Taliban, and they rebuilt their identity within their own culture.

The second feminist principle I see in this book is the affirmation of female sexuality.  Hosseini allows the women to have both positive and negative feelings about sex.  It's not a glaring motif in the story, for the point is not to stir up the readers' sexual emotions, but it's nevertheless important to acknowledge women's feelings in this way.  One of the characters also repeatedly experiences the heartbreak of miscarriage, showing readers the emotion in this situation that is not often seen.  I find this presentation of women to be very validating and significant in the novel.

A third feminist principle I identify is the strength of women.  Mariam and Laila cannot be narrowed down simply to the classification of "victim."  It is not just an oppressor-victim relationship, because they have strengths and courage throughout the novel.  They cannot be confined to social gender roles because they have too many depths and layers to fit in them.  There are reasons their lives came to this point, and although it is not their fault, it is also not because they were just a weaker species that succumbed to the greater.  For me, this is a refreshing perspective.

And all this coming from a male author!

Once again, I got too wrapped up in one idea to talk about the story itself.  The writing is fluent and interesting.  And the plot is absolutely compelling.  I desperately tore threw the pages, searching for some redemption in a despairing story.  I couldn't sleep until I knew whether or not there was going to be any kind of happiness for these two highly lovable and yet extremely miserable women.  I won't reveal the answer to that one for you, because I think it would take away your experience as reader.  The drama in the story is that very question: Will justice prevail??  For all these reasons and more, I think A Thousand Splendid Suns deserves to join the list.

1 comment:

Brian Bither said...

I'm happy to see that this one made your list. I actually read it before I read Kite Runner, and I wondered if the reason I experienced it as the better novel was simply because I had read it first. (This is not meant to be a slight against Kite Runner - which was also a wonderful book.) Could you speak more on this? What do you think made it "better"? Was it simply its bold exploration of feminist topics? Or do you think that Hosseini's skills as an author had notably improved by the second book?

I found it interesting that Kite Runner focuses on an almost exclusively male family (primarily a father-son pair where the female-figure of the family was CLEARLY absent, along with some additional male characters) whereas A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on an almost exclusively female group (especially by the end of the novel, when Miriam and Laila, together with her daughter (if I remember right), form an exclusively female family where the male-figure was CLEARLY absent. I think Hosseini speaks almost as much about gender in the absence of these roles as he does in their presence - in some ways, making A Thousand Splendid Suns the appropriate counterpart to the Kite Runner. Anyway, just interested in your thoughts on all of this, as it is one of my favorite fiction novels.