Saturday, March 01, 2008

Don't read this, Lesley

Having finished A Thousand Splendid Suns well in advance of our book club meeting, I thought it might be a good idea if I wrote down some of my thoughts now, since we all know I'm going to forget them otherwise. Then we'll all be sitting down to discuss the book, and I'll be reduced to, "Well, I know I did read it ..."

So here's my first reaction. This book made me feel terrible. I've certainly read graphic descriptions of violence before (in The Kite Runner, for example), but these scenes of women trapped by so many levels of oppression that escape is virtually impossible were more horrific to me than almost anything I've read before. I guess when you're reading about a guy in prison, there's always the thought that this could turn into an adventure story where he miraculously escapes. For these women, there's no place to escape to. Their whole physical landscape is reduced to a prison, where any women out in public is at risk, where there are no good samaritans. Run away from your abusive husband? Get turned in and sent back, all in less than a day. No escape. I think only an Afghan could have written this book, because otherwise the accusations of stereotyping Afghanis would be flying thick and fast.

My second reaction? It seems to me that the most complex and compelling character in this book is the villain. The two main women? More or less saintly. They both display human flaws in places, but mainly they are innocent victims whose main function seems to be demonstrating the many ways women get the shaft in Afghan society. The abusive husband? Not straightforward at all. He is clearly a monster, but loves his son dearly, and is able to have a relationship with this child where his love is returned. He has moments of kindness, he begins relationships with good behavior. It never lasts. His underlying view of women is despicable. But he's not just bad through and through all the time, and his flashes of humanity make him the most three-dimensional character in the book.

These are the observations that have stayed with me in the few days since I finished reading. I guess I should go look up some book club questions so I'll have answers ready for Lesley when we meet.



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