Reviewed by Rima Walker
Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, seemed to be on the New York Times Best Seller list forever, lording it over the romances and crime novels usually found there. It was, in essence, a blockbuster that everyone was talking about. I read it and could not put it down until I finished it, and eagerly awaited another great tale from Hosseini. This second novel covers about 30 years of Afghan history with emphasis on the changing political order and constant war among factions and its effects on the Afghani people. The book concerns itself with the plights of women in a country that swung back and forth between some freedom for them and intense restrictions placed upon them along with horrifying abuse sanctioned by the law of the land.
The book’s sections alternate between the lives of two women. Mariam is the first we meet, an illegitimate child of a wealthy Afghani man with many wives and many legitimate children. He builds a hovel for Mariam and her mother, having put them out of his home, but does come to visit, promising Mariam many things he never delivers.
Mariam’s mother is bitter, hating the man who threw her out when she bore Miriam, and warns her daughter that sooner or later men will be her undoing. But Mariam adores her father and is convinced until proven otherwise that her father loves her and will accept her. He does not; instead he marries her off at a very young age to an older, coarse, and brutal man, Rasheed, who insists that she wear a burqa and not leave the house without him.
Laila is the second woman, a child of an educated and kindly father who wants her to be educated as well. But as the Afghani factions fight each other after the Communists are gone, tragedy befalls her as her family is killed and her best friend Tariq, whom she loves, flees to Pakistan. Pregnant with Tariq’s child, she is married off to Rasheed, who at first believes the child is his and later doubts it and makes her pay dearly through excessive abuse. When Laila enters Rasheed’s household as second wife, Mariam resents her at first because she is treated well by Rasheed as long as he believes the child is his. Much of the abuse that Mariam suffers is because she does not bear him children.
Yes, I know. This sounds like a soap opera. But when the women come together as great friends after Laila’s child is born, the foremost themes of the novel take over. In plain, straightforward language, Hosseini teaches us what it is like to be a woman living under the Taliban regime that promised everything, only to place atrocious rules over the people who were punished for the smallest infractions, sometimes with beatings, sometimes with death. It was, of course, the women who suffered the most. And Hosseini shows us that the growing love between the women helps them endure. As the lives of Mariam and Laila become harder to bear under the hands of Rasheed, who at last does have a son from Mariam, the two must find a way to escape.
The message is about the heartbreaking lives women have led in Afghanistan, the terrifying effects of war on a people, and hatred and brutality between men and women; but it is primarily about love that enables people to endure the hardships of their lives, love between friends, between women and their children, and the desperate measures they take to protect one another. ~