This book was wonderful for several reasons. First, as an American, I really ought to know more about Afghanistan than I do. This book familiarizes readers with the last couple of generations’ worth of political upheaval in that country in a way that demonstrates different people’s attitudes towards and motivations surrounding these changes. The book ably illustrates the opinion of one character, “It’s always been hard to be a woman in Afghanistan,” (paraphrasing), but it also shows that it’s also difficult to be a man. The Afghanistan portrayed in this novel is a tragic place, in large part because it has such beauty, history, culture, spirituality, etc., that the loss or perversion of these things is heart-wrenching. This novel seems to chronicle the breakdown of civilization and its terrible consequences alongside the evaporation of different characters’ dreams. Heartbreak, abuse, betrayal, love, and family drama is universal, but Hosseini’s brilliant structuring of his narrative shows how these are more than individual dramas; in this novel, all of Afghanistan experiences these things on a national level. The personal is political.
I thought Hosseini managed to portray his main characters– Mariam and Laila– with beautiful compassion, even when displaying their flaws. Like Hardy’s attitude towards Tess, the narrative point of view seems to regret all that these women experience, to want to remove their pain, and yet needs to acknowledge that these experiences and pain are all too real for too many people. Perhaps I’m reading into things. I also appreciated his portrayal of mother-daughter relationships. There’s more going on there than I have absorbed in one initial reading. Mariam and Laila both end up having adversarial relationships with their own mothers, and yet (SPOILER) the relationship between the two of them is very sweet (perhaps because of a common oppressor?).
All in all, this was a book I had trouble putting down. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. I was worried about Laila’s lover after they were separated. I wanted things to go well for Mariam throughout. I wondered what happened to her father. I thought this was a book of lamentations overall, but there’s so much good in it also. Hosseini’s able style puts his work clearly alongside other masters of Western literature. If you can stand a sad story, make room on your shelf for this one.
PS For readers of The Kite Runner– I found this novel to be just a beautiful, but slightly less disturbing. I liked this novel better.