Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

First off, let me preface this review by saying that this is pretty far removed from the kind of book I normally read. It's basically Romantic (in the older sense of that term) fiction. However, the setting sort of reached out and grabbed me: the book is set in the historical twentieth-century third world. When I discovered that the public library had it on audio, I went ahead and checked it out.

As historical fiction, however, I found the book disappointing. The book jacket information raves that "personal lives are inextricable from the history playing out around them", but I find this to be less than altogether true, as the main characters are two very reclusive women. During the bulk of the story they almost never leave the house and so have almost no opportunity to directly observe anything going on outside its walls. The history is reported almost entirely through the men in the story, who are really side characters, and through intermittent narration largely irrelevant to the story. We hear about the Soviets through Laila's father, and about the Mujahideen and the Taliban through Rasheed, a man so distant (and poorly detailed) that he is himself almost a part of the setting rather than a character. There are two notable times that the history really has a direct impact. One is when a stray rocket serves as a plot device to keep Laila from leaving the city with her family. Historical fiction is not a genre that I've read extensively, but in what I have read of it, the history was much more integrated into the story than this. (The other instance, admittedly, is better writing, if a bit macabre: the hospital conditions for the delivery of Laila's second child.)

The two main characters are developed thoroughly and well. They are multi-faceted, dynamic, interesting, and reasonably realistic, and the reader can identify with them and feel sympathy for them. Most of the other characters, however, are relatively underdeveloped: flat, largely uninteresting, and in many cases static. The story suffers for this, particularly from the poor development of Rasheed. Here we have a major character, around whom the plot is wrapped like a glove, so that virtually everything that happens to the other major characters is a result of some action on his part, and yet he is so poorly developed, so distant, that I found myself completely unable to identify with him at all, unable to care at all what happened to him (for good or ill). The parents of the four women all also have important roles in the early part of the book, but of the four, only Jalil has more than one facet of his personality explored in any depth. Later, Aziza is a fairly important character, or could be, but we know almost nothing about her.

The plot writing is, in my estimation, better than the characters. Although it is predictable and even obvious at times, there are a number of unexpected turns. Most of these turns are created by actions taken by Rasheed, not by the "history playing out"; nonetheless the story has a satisfying complexity and completeness. This had to be difficult to achieve, with characters who spend nearly all of their time at home, but the author manages it surprisingly well.