Sunday, 23 August 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini


Although they say you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I will hold my hand up and admit every time that it is something I am flawed by. The cover of A Thousand Splendid Suns was not one I would normally have given more than a glance to. Even after reading the blurb, I was not too keen on reading. However there was something about it, something even now I cannot place my finge on, that made me turn the first page, begin to read. And after the first sentence, I was hooked.

The first thing I found peculiar about the book is its style. The first part takes us through the life of Mariam, a character who was then just a teenager, and the problems she had to deal with. In the second part of the book, we jump to a new character called Laila, who is only a child. We read about the issues in her life too, and it is quite easy to compare the different lifestyles both our characters lead. Although both living in Afghanistan, their days are completely different. I'd say this sudden unexpected change between characters engaged me further, certainly making me want to become more involved with the plot. By part three, this switch became clear. Our two characters are brought together to suffer side by side in the company of the same man, Rasheed, when they are both forced to marry him at different points in their life.

Both characters,I felt, were very strong and easy to connect with. I think the fact that we see Mariam gow up from a teenager right through to her more mature days is wonderful. She is a character who has so much depth to her, so many secets yet it felt like I knew her inside out. Laila too felt very lifelike and was often left in my mind, even after closing the book. Having read late at night, I'd actually gone on to dream myself into the character of Laila, living her life as if it were my own. That was one of the most peculiar things I've ever experienced, and I can only look at it as a benefit as in some ways it helped me to connect with the book more.

The other characters in the book were quite well-rounded too, with a lot of diversity between them. There were three which I felt were the most powerful: Rasheed, Tariq and Babi. Rasheed first married Mariam and later Laila. As soon as he was introduced he became a character I despised. I could picture him as this grubby old man, with dirt up his fingernails and scraggly hair in disaray. I could almot smell the foul scent of cigar smoke on him, it was uncanny. Just as he was beginning to grow on me, treating Mariam with that bit of respect she deserved, he weds Laila and tosses Mariam to one side. From that point my opinion of him rapidly spun from a dislike into utter hatred.

Babi, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Rasheed. He is Laila's father, and a very intellectual man at that. It was clear from the moment he was introduced that he was kind and caring. He wanted only the best for Laila and believed she could be anything she wanted to be. Rasheed, in comparison, believed that women were there to cook and clean, and should always be covered up. I only wish there was more involvement with Babi in the book than there actually is.

As for Tariq, he started out as a typical little child, all adventure and games. He seemed quite a sweet little child, and certainly stuck up for his then-friend Laila. As he ages he doesn't lose any of his golden characteristics, which I think is what I liked about his character. The others evolve a little over the course of the plot, but Tariq stays pretty much the same.

The setting of the story made this a very different read for me. Every story Ive ever read has been set in either the UK or America, with the exception of one based in Germany. With this one taking place in Afghanistan, it was like removing me from my confort zone. The hype in the media, I've only ever seen broadcast the war situations, so to imagine everyday life in Afghanistan I felt was going to be a challenge. Thankfully though I was able to see a clear picture in my head of both Herat and Kabul, making imagining the story unfold a lot easier.

The language in the book is most peculair. In the very first sentence, a foreign word is used, and this had initially worried me; I can get quite confused with foreign words if I'm not overly familiar with the language. Though as I read on, I found the same words being repeated over and over, sticking in my mind. Some of these words were explained, others I just had to try and work out myself. I'd first seen this as an annoyance, but I soon came to understand that the use of the language did in fact help transport me to Afghanistan and drop me right into the story.

For me, the plot was what affected me most. The characters were strong, the style is unique, but the plot has made this book the enjoyment that it is. The one thing I noticed was the fact that this is told like a story, rather than a problem waiting to unfold. I'm used to reading fiction where the main issue is clear within the first few chapters and the story unfolds itself, leaving you with a solution at the end. However, A Thousand Splendid Suns has not one single problem. Instead, it has many. As soon as one issue arises, it is 'solved' within a few chapters, and then a new one crops up. Another thing I found is that nothing ever went to plan. Everything the characters plan blows up in their faces, sometimes too literally.

There were two occasions in the book when I'd actually been reduced to tears. Now that is unusual for me. Autobiographies can make me well up, some even make me cry buckets, but never before has a piece of fiction stirred me so much. The first incident was when Laila and baby Aziza were minutes away from death. The description at this point is so vivid, it's horrifying. The second time was when we see the end of a much loved character. I'll say no more about that, I wouldn't want to spoil the shock.

I'd never actually heard of author Khaled Hosseini, I'd never heard of A Thousand Splendid Suns, and my initial reaction before reading was not at all positive. However, I could not have been more wrong. I've never read any fiction that has left such an imprint in my mind. I've never read anything with such strong characters as those dealt with in this book, and despite it being set in a country I knew very little about, I've never felt so connected with a story. A Thousand Splendid Suns is not a book I'm going to forget in a hurry, and thankfully it's for all the right reasons!

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