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May 23-30, 2007

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Summer Lit Issue:
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Khaled Hosseini

Lifting The Burka

Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini's new novel 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' gives readers a glimpse into the troubled world of Afghan women

By Steve Hahn

Imagine growing up in a world devoid of innocence, spending your young life navigating the complex repressive forces that have trapped you in poverty, fear and confusion. Now ratchet that sensation of despairing entrapment up 10 notches and you have taken your first step into the world of A Thousand Splendid Suns, the new novel by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

The story follows Mariam and Laila, two young women struggling to survive in Afghanistan as they traverse the mine-littered road of sexual hierarchy, nonstop war and overwhelming guilt for the sins of others. Constantly intersecting the characters' personal narratives are the dreary and violent politics of Afghanistan over the last half-century, ranging from the communist takeover in the late '70s to the United States invasion of 2001.

Hosseini follows the two women from the age of 5 until the middle of their adulthood, which provides a broad canvas with which to paint the range of forces degrading women in Afghanistan, from the hypervaluation of male children to instances of rape within arranged marriage. Intimate relationships are tarnished by the various ills of society and love is often no more than an illusion.

Yet, refreshingly, Hosseini shows a measure of restraint when discussing the crushing problems facing Afghan women. While the conflicts he presents are tragic, he tempers them with a sense of moral ambiguity that drenches the characters' understanding of the world around them. The reader, likewise, is not offered any easy answers, no "right" side to join to solve the moral and political dilemmas plaguing the desert land and its unfortunate inhabitants.

Scenes offering Mariam and Laila hope for a better life or escape from painful interpersonal relationships are quickly complicated, if not shattered altogether. For instance, when Mariam goes to live with her wealthy and seemingly friendly father, hoping to escape the bitter resentment of the dejected mother she has shared a small shack with for 15 years, she is turned away as the illegitimate daughter of a servant and forced to sleep on the street outside his house.

This cycle of raised hopes withering away into crushing disappointment appears as a consistent and depressing theme in the book, mirrored in both the characters and the tumultuous nation in which they live. When the communist government is defeated and the Soviet invaders are driven back to their homeland, the characters are jubilant.

Freedom from centuries of use as a tool in the work-belt of various empires seems to have finally arrived and Afghanistan will be able to direct its own will. Within a year, unfortunately, the warlords revert to factionalism and lay waste to Kabul with rockets. But scenes like these are just a small peek into the whirlwind of disillusionment facing Laila and Mariam throughout the book.

One sign of a skilled novelist is the ability to present the complexity of character and setting without lacing the narrative with a preset agenda or specific "message," always a risk in storytelling that incorporates contentious political themes.

Hosseini's steady handle on this skill may be best explained by looking into the author's creative process. Hosseini, whose 2003 debut novel, The Kite Runner, won the 2006 Reading Group Book of the Year award, said in a recent interview, "For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there. [But] the intimate and personal was intertwined inextricably with the broad and historical. And so the turmoil in Afghanistan and the country's tortured recent past slowly became more than mere backdrop."

Hosseini is a master explorer in this realm of internal strife, and he even grants peeks into the confused inner lives of minor, at times even evil, characters. While discussing the cruel and dogmatic Taliban officers, for instance, the narrator reminds us of their robbed youth in refugee camps.

Likewise, the abusive husband is shown reacting to none other than his own personal sense of loss. A desire to understand even the most violent, morally warped individuals underlies the novel. In fact, the narrator seems to be provoking readers to question what their moral choices would be under such grim conditions.

The transmission of pain through people and time is, finally, the most tragic element pulsing through the narrative. For the narrator, each new generation is scarred by the past. But despite all attempts at remedy, by the end of the book it is clear that this newer generation will be forced to inflict trauma on their children as well, as if by decree from history.

Hosseini writes a deceptively direct and simple prose. He doesn't assault you with his vocabulary; instead he ropes you into the minds of his characters, leaving you with a sense of empathy for everyone, even the bad guys. He conveys a kind of repulsion for the general situation at the same time that he offers forgiveness for the individuals caught up in it.

When reading the book it is hard to keep today's headlines out of one's mind. Similar cycles of violence, repression and transmission of pain are tragically repeating themselves across the region. Yet in this book, Hosseini looks beyond the body counts and broad generalizations to the complex stories of the individual women living in the midst of chaos and gender hierarchy, offering stories of forgiveness and sacrifice that transcend cultural boundaries.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini; Riverhead; 384 pages; $25.95 hardcover. Hosseini will appear at a booksigning event on June 19, at 7:30pm, at Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. Tickets are $30 and include a copy of the book. If you buy one $30 ticket, you have the option of buying a second ticket for $10. Tickets must be preordered online or at the cafe. (831.462.4415)

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