Second novels, like “follow up albums” or movie sequels, are difficult; especially if the first creation has been a success. This is Hosseini’s second novel, after the hugely best-selling “Kite Runner,” which fairly flew away with readers’ hearts. But it is a little unfair to set the two books beside each other and compare; rather, I feel they are two sides of the same coin.
What is that coin? It is the same dirty, ravaged, sweet, haunted landscape of Afghanistan; this time with a different story imprinted on it. This is the story of two women, Mariam and Laila. There are other women too, young and old. Each one bears her own burden of suffering and bitterness. Each one endures, and endures.
Mariam grows up with her mother Nana in a mud-brick house; a wheelbarrow full of their monthly provisions arrives from her guilt-ridden father; it has swallows and a stream and a clearing, and there is the gentle presence of Mullah Faizullah, her elderly Qur’an teacher and friend. They are estranged from her affluent father Jalil, who owns cinemas and three wives in the nearby town of Herat.
Mariam is an embarrassment, a harami (bastard), and her father deals with her accordingly. At fifteen, she is married to Rasheed, a widower in his forties, a Kabul shoemaker living in “a house that had once been blue.” Rasheed informs her that “A woman’s face is her husband’s business only,” as he presents her with a burqa. Mariam descends into a life of drudgery, dulled longing, desperate attempts to bear children, and the pervasive fear of her husband, who becomes increasingly abusive.
The younger Laila has a better chance at life: a comfortable upbringing with loving parents, and a childhood sweetheart. When all of this is tossed into the air one sunny morning as the family is preparing to leave the devastated city, she becomes a broken, struggling creature who enters the desolate household of Rasheed and Mariam. Thereafter, the story centers on the evolving relationship between the two women and the angry patriarch who rules them.
Hosseini skillfully builds an atmosphere of suffocating oppression in the unforgiving city of the Taliban. The women lie in a locked room listening to rockets and machine gun fire; endure violent sex that is devoid of tenderness; hear the sound of blows on skin; feel the stifling heat of Kabul in a power cut. We feel and hear the crack and crunch, as Rasheed forces Mariam to bite on stones; and sense the sudden narrowing of vision when she first places a burqa on her head (Hosseini wore one for a while, to experience this). And there is the sheer loneliness that deprivation and abuse creates: a kind of hollow shell that protects and at the same time destroys the soul.
Mariam’s story is compelling. Numbly accepting, she moves through the narrative bearing a burden of hopeless sacrifice, her horizons fading fast. Her one moment of rebellion is a pivotal point in the story. Despite her passivity, the story turns on her. Laila’s story, frankly, has an air of soap opera about it; especially in the last twenty or so pages of the book, when everything is neatly wrapped up.
The story ends with a somewhat contrived sense of reconciliation and an attempt to look bravely into the future. I’m not so sure. I hope this was not written with a screenplay in mind; it has the unsatisfactory feel of a film that rushes quickly towards a happy ending.
I’m not sure that life is like that; especially in Afghanistan.
Footnote: The title comes from this 17th century Persian poem in praise of the city of Kabulby Saib-e-Tabrizi:
Ah! How beautiful is Kabul encircled by her arid mountains
And Rose, of the trails of thorns she envies
Her gusts of powdered soil, slightly sting my eyes
But I love her, for knowing and loving are born of this same dust
My song exhalts her dazzling tulips
And at the beauty of her trees, I blush
How sparkling the water flows from Pul-I-Bastaan! May Allah protect such beauty from the evil eye of man!
Khizr chose the path to Kabul in order to reach Paradise
For her mountains brought him close to the delights of heaven
From the fort with sprawling walls, A Dragon of protection
Each stone is there more precious than the treasure of Shayagan
Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls
Her laughter of mornings has the gaiety of flowers
Her nights of darkness, the reflections of lustrous hair
Her melodious nightingales, with passion sing their songs
Ardent tunes, as leaves enflamed, cascading from their throats
And I, I sing in the gardens of Jahanara, of Sharbara
And even the trumpets of heaven envy their green pastures
- Bomb stuck to parked police car explodes in Kabul (ctv.ca)
- On a Kabul Hill, the Dogs and Kites of War (time.com)
- Dispatch from Afghanistan: Imprisoned Women and Ill-Fitting Bullet-Proof Vests (marieclaire.com)
- Six brilliant novels about sex, murder, and the meaning of life (psychologytoday.com)