Following up a great first novel is no easy task, and many writers fall victim to the so-called “sophomore slump”. Not Khaled Hosseini. In his second novel he sticks with what he does best – a riveting portrait of Afghanistan from the 1970s to the present day centered around compelling human drama. A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam, a harami (or illegitimate) girl who longs for her father’s love and acceptance, and Laila, an indomitable beauty whose love for her childhood friend Tariq is the driving force behind her determination and will. The two women’s fates are intertwined after both end up forced by circumstance and/or family into a marriage with the abusive Rasheed. Through Mariam and Laila’s eyes we witness the deterioration of their homeland in a way that we couldn’t in Hosseini’s previous novel, “The Kite Runner”. That is because while Amir, the protagonist of Kite Runner, left Afghanistan for America and only returned when the transformation from peaceful nation to violent bed of terrorists was complete, Mariam and Laila are trapped there during the whole bloody mess of regime changes, bombings, executions, droughts, and diseases. As women, they have no rights and seemingly no control over their own fates – forced to stay in a wasted city where death lurks around every corner and any deviation from the rules will get them a violent rebuke from the government and/or their husband. The odds are hopelessly stacked against them, but through their friendship Mariam and Laila find the strength to endure. Their love for each other and their tarnished homeland – which they dream to see rebuilt one day – is the life force that gets them through the years, and from it they draw reserves of strength, wisdom, and compassion that they never believed they possessed. Downtrodden and beaten, Mariam and Laila carry on with an inner light just like that of their beloved city of Kabul in an old poem from which Hosseini derives his title: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs / Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”
Sophomore slump? Not here; if anything, Hosseini has raised his game and written an even better novel than the already great Kite Runner. To be honest, there are a couple of awkwardly structured sentences and overused commas, but in an otherwise stellar novel this is easily forgivable. So put The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns on your must-read list, and join those of us who are waiting with great anticipation for Hosseini’s next effort. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.