Plot Overview

A Thousand Splendid Suns recounts the experiences and emotions of two Afghani women, Mariam and Laila, whose lives become entangled with the history of recent wars in their country. Mostly bleak and heartrending, their story does offer the promise of hope and happiness in a land ravaged by warfare, gender conflicts, and poverty.

The novel begins in 1974, when Mariam is fifteen. She lives with her single mother in an isolated spot outside of Herat, an Afghan community of artists. Mariam’s father, Jalil, runs the local movie theater. He does not live with her. Mariam’s mother, whom Mariam calls Nana, was a servant in Jalil’s home when she became pregnant. Jalil had three other wives and never offered to marry Mariam’s mother. Instead, he built a modest house for her on a hill out of town. Jalil comes to visit Mariam once a week and charms her into believing the he will one day fully claim her. Nana, a bitter and sickly woman, tries to destroy Mariam’s fantasies of her father. Mariam’s mother is fully aware that Jalil will eventually betray Mariam, which he does. Although Jalil finally takes Mariam into his home, he gives in to his wives’ demands to send Mariam away by offering her as a bride to an older man.

Her future husband is Rasheed, a successful shoemaker in Kabul. He is a big man, and his size alone frightens Mariam when she first sees him. Before she leaves her father’s side, Mariam swears she will never again speak to him for not allowing her to stay in his house.

Rasheed believes that a man should rule over his wife. He does not allow Mariam to go outside without him, and she must also dress in a burka whenever they leave the home. Mariam, however, remains in Rasheed’s relative good favor until she has a miscarriage and fails several more times to bear a child. With each of his wife’s miscarriages, Rasheed becomes crueler and more distant. Soon she is routinely beaten for trivial and often made-up reasons.

The story then switches to Laila, who has an adoring father who is a teacher and makes sure that Laila is well educated—one of the new breed of modern Afghan women. Laila’s mother, however, dotes on her sons and mostly ignores Laila. Her mother falls into a deep depression when her sons go off to war and then are killed. The Russian and Taliban armies intensify their clashes, and one day a missile destroys Laila’s house. Her parents are killed, and Laila is injured.

Rasheed, who lives down the street, pulls Laila out of the ruins and insists that Mariam nurse her back to health. In Laila’s background is a story about a male childhood friend, Tariq, with whom Laila had recently had sex. Laila soon discovers that she is pregnant. Tariq has left with his family for Pakistan to escape the war in Afghanistan. Laila did not know about the pregnancy until after Tariq was gone.

As Laila is recuperating, a stranger comes to visit and claims he met Tariq in a hospital. Tariq was badly wounded, he says, and died of his injuries. (Later, Laila learns that Rasheed paid the man to tell her this story. Everyone, including Rasheed, knew that Tariq and Laila were in love.) After the man’s visit, Rasheed offers to marry Laila. Knowing she cannot make a living for herself and her baby, she agrees. Mariam does not welcome this arrangement.

As time passes, Rasheed guesses that Laila’s daughter, Aziza, is not his. A couple of years later, Laila produces Rasheed’s baby—a son named Zalmai. Rasheed, after the birth of his son, begins to treat Laila much like he has treated Mariam. Laila is now beaten when she talks back to him.

One day, Tariq returns. He expresses his love, and Laila takes him to see his daughter, whom Laila has been forced to place in an orphanage so the little girl would be guaranteed food. Rasheed has lost his business, and money is scarce. When Rasheed finds out that Tariq is back and has been to the house, he beats Laila. His rage intensifies when Laila talks back, and he tries to strangle her. Mariam, fearing for her friend’s life, hits Rasheed in the head with a shovel, killing him. In order to save Laila and the children, who might be implicated in the murder, Mariam turns herself over to the Taliban. She is sentenced to death.

Laila and Tariq run away with both children and live in Pakistan. But after the United States invades Afghanistan, the family returns to Kabul. Their love for each other, as well as their love for their homeland, despite its cruelties and harshness and hardships, ends the novel on a high note, suggesting the possibility of a better future.


The beginning of the story takes place in an idyllic setting in the town of Herat and its environs. The town is known for its artists, especially its poets. Mariam, one of the main characters, lives in a small house with her mother. Jalil, Mariam’s father, lives in a large house inside the town limits.

When Mariam marries, the setting changes to Kabul, the largest city of Afghanistan and its capital. Here live various types of people, ranging from the most modern (who are highly influenced by the West) to the most traditional (who follow the strict dictates of conservative religious sects). The modernized population encourages education of both men and women. Many of these people drive fancy cars and live in large houses.

The novel begins in 1974, as Soviet-backed communists are ruling the country under a dictatorship. As the story progresses, so too does the power of the Taliban, who fight the Russians and eventually push them out of the country. The story ends in 2003, after the arrival of U.S. forces. War is a constant companion to the characters of this story, as one political and military faction supplants another.

Ideas for Group Discussions

1. Create a timeline for this story. Begin with the early twentieth century, before the story starts. Include the names and reigns of political leaders, combining factual information with the births, deaths, and other events in the fictional characters’ lives.

2. What different factors affected Mariam and Laila to make Laila more outspoken than Mariam and more willing to stand up to Rasheed? How did their parents differ? What beliefs were each of them raised with?

3. Mariam’s opinion of her father, Jalil, differed greatly from her mother’s opinion. Discuss what Mariam thought of Jalil and then contrast this with what Mariam’s mother thought. Which portrait of Jalil do you think was most correct?

4. Why did Mariam’s mother hang herself? Why did she feel so desperate? Were her feelings justified? Mariam believed her mother’s death was a significant turning point in her own life. Do you agree?

5. Why was Rasheed so hard on Mariam? Do you think the author was too biased in Mariam’s favor? Can you find any positive characteristics that Rasheed exhibited?

6. Why didn’t Laila go with Tariq when his family left Kabul for Pakistan? Why didn’t Tariq demand that Laila go with him? Even if you cannot find exact explanations for these actions, what do you think might have been behind them?

7. What brought about Mariam and Laila’s friendship? What changed to make Mariam like Laila? What was their relationship like before this happened?

8. If you were in a jury, how would you have judged and punished Mariam for killing Rasheed? Was the crime justified? Was there any way out of the predicament without resorting to murder? Do you think Mariam just wanted to save Laila, or did she also want to see Rasheed dead?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Research the lives of women in Afghani culture. What advantages or restrictions did the women experience under the monarchy? Under the warlords? Under communist rule? Under the Taliban? Since the U.S. invasion, have their lives improved? According to your research, did Hosseini accurately depict the lives of women in this novel?

2. Mariam sacrificed her life to save Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai. Write a letter that Mariam might have composed to Laila in her last days in prison, expressing her love as well as why she did what she did. What do you think, given Mariam’s circumstances, she would want to say to Laila? Read your letter to your class.

3. Find pictures of Afghani clothing for men, women, and children. Include traditional clothing such as the burka as well as more moderate forms. How do the different types of clothing reflect the emotional, psychological, and social conditions of the characters in the novel? Give a multimedia presentation to your class that includes the pictures you found.

4. Research the economics of Afghanistan. How does the country make its money? How do the average citizens make a living? How has the economy changed over the years? Do you think the outcome of the novel would be different if Afghanistan had a more developed economy? Make a presentation of your findings to your class.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

Because his first novel, The Kite Runner, proved to be so successful both with literary critics and with the public, many doubted that Hosseini’s second novel could possibly be as good. However, a majority of reviewers found that A Thousand Splendid Suns either lived up to the same standards or surpassed them.

Hosseini has been praised both for the high quality of his prose as well as for his skill at keeping an audience engaged with his stories. He also has the ability to mix captivating characters with the history that surrounds them. He can dig into the emotions of his characters to make them feel real, almost as if he were telling the stories of real people he has long known. He even manages to shed light on a country and a culture that few of his readers are acquainted with. And that, so Hosseini has stated in interviews, is the primary goal of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Related Titles / Adaptations

Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner (2004), stunned reviewers with its powerful and eloquent prose. Also praised for its sensitive and deep character portrayals as well as its insight into the usually obscure history of Afghanistan, the book has been called a truly great work of literature. Although similar themes are explored in A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini’s first novel leans more toward the political as the protagonist leaves his homeland as a child and then returns as a man to discover truths earlier hidden from him.

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2003) recounts a different type of search. The protagonist, Pi, a sixteen-year-old boy, finds himself the survivor of a sunken ship, along with a collection of zoo animals. During his 227-day journey across the ocean with the sole remaining animal, a Bengal tiger, the story is mostly told through blurred hallucinations as Pi ponders the meaning of life and fights to stay alive.

The Savage Detectives (2007), a recently translated work by one of Chile’s great writers, Roberto Bolaño, follows the world travels of two young men as they search for a political utopia. Along the way, they meet a wild array of characters whose stories are both comical and tragic. This is an excellent introduction to a writer who is often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

For Further Reference

Bercow, John. 2007. Women of no importance. Spectator (London), June 2. Bercow states that despite the constant war that is thrust upon the characters of this story, the author fills A Thousand Splendid Suns with love, hope, and a desire to survive. Bercow also says that Hosseini “writes beautifully and is a natural storyteller.”

Saricks, Joyce. 2007. Review of A thousand splendid suns. Booklist 104 (5): 74. Saricks calls Hosseini’s novel a moving story told through strong lyrical writing and emotional content.

See, Lisa. 2007. Mariam and Laila. New York Times Book Review, June 3, p. 58. Lisa See points out that Hosseini, after the great success of his first novel, could have taken it easy when it came time to write his second book. Instead, See thinks Splendid Suns is an ambitious work. The author has worked hard and created another well-crafted piece of literature.

Yardley, Jonathan. 2007. The author of “The kite runner” returns with a story about Afghan women. Washington Post, May 20, p. T 15. Yardley says that A Thousand Splendid Suns will undoubtedly be a bestseller no matter what reviewers say. But if readers really want to know if he thinks this novel is as good as Hosseini’s first bestseller, The Kite Runner, Yardley answers, “No. It’s better.”

Zipp, Yvonne. 2007. In Kabul, the tale of two women. Christian Science Monitor, May 22, p. 13. Zipp did not find Hosseini’s second novel as great a work as his first, but she does admit that A Thousand Splendid Suns is an ambitious attempt at telling a gripping story and providing an inside view into the lives of Afghan women. The story is both heart-wrenching and informative, Zipp says