In A Thousand Splendid Suns, author Khaled Hosseini explores the lives of two women in late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Afghanistan. The novel opens with the story of Mariam, who at five years old first heard the word harami—bastard. Her father, Jalil, had always called her his little flower, but on this occasion, he mouthed the truth of her birth. Nana, Mariam’s mother, had been one of Jalil’s housekeepers until she became pregnant with his child and was cast out of the house. Jalil had three wives and nine legitimate children, all heirs to his fortune in Herat and its neighboring lands. Jalil did not have enough strength to do the honorable thing and stand up to his wives, so Mariam was sent to live in a kolba, a hut, in the countryside on the outskirts of Gul Daman with her baby. And although Jalil visited, Mariam was never able to escape the circumstances of her birth.
One day, Bibi jo, an old woman who is a friend of Nana, comes to the kolba and says that two of Jalil’s daughters are being allowed to attend school. Mariam immediately wants the same privilege, but her mother tells her that the only life lesson that she is meant to learn is that of endurance. Mariam resolves to tell her father of her wish—she wants to live in his house in Herat as one of his children. But Mariam keeps this wish to herself, and in the spring of 1974 on her fifteenth birthday, she tells Jalil that as her gift, she wants to go see Pinocchio at the cinema. Both her parents try to persuade her otherwise, but Jalil finally consents to her wish. On the day that Jalil is supposed to take Mariam into town, he never arrives, and Mariam sits waiting until her legs are stiff. Then, she does what she has never done before—she crosses the stream and walks to Herat.
Once in town, a driver offers Mariam a ride to Jalil’s house. She is not welcomed into the home and is told that Jalil is away on business. Mariam spends the night sleeping outside the house. The next day, she forces herself into the open gates of the garden. Jalil’s driver catches her and takes her home. But Mariam has already seen Jalil’s shocked face in an upstairs window, and on the drive home she cries, understanding that her father has betrayed her and that she has disgraced herself. When they arrive at the hut, Mariam finds Nana hanging from a branch of the weeping willow tree.
Because her mother is now dead, Jalil takes Mariam into his home, but she spends most of her time alone in her room. A week later, Afsoon, one of Jalil’s wives, summons Mariam. The family tells Mariam that she will be married off to a suitor named Rasheed who is much older than Mariam. She does not want to get married and pleads with Jalil, but the marriage is arranged anyway.
The couple take a bus to Rasheed’s home in Deh-Mazang in Kabul. Mariam must pay close attention while speaking with Rasheed because she is not accustomed to his dialect and accent. Once at the home, Mariam cries because the houses are so close together and the space is small. Rasheed insists that Mariam will like her new home, but for the next few days, Mariam stays locked away in her room. Soon, Rasheed insists that Mariam assume her responsibilities as housewife and that she have sex with him. Mariam wonders how so many women could have such an unlucky fate to end up married. Mariam’s life gets even harder when she learns that Rasheed does not believe in contemporary manners of social etiquette and forces her to wear a burqa when in public. Rather than resent Rasheed’s impositions, Mariam believes that her husband wants to protect her honor and the sanctity of their marriage. But Mariam soon changes her mind when she finds a gun and a stash of pornographic magazines in Rasheed’s drawer. From then on, Mariam dreads hearing Rasheed’s keys in the door and thinks with regret on her failed attempts to conceive a child.
In April 1978, military planes zoom over Kabul. Rebels attack the Presidential Palace, and executions of those connected to Daoud Khan’s regime are held. And in the midst of the mounting violence in the city, the violence in Mariam and Rasheed’s home begins: Rasheed forces Mariam to chew pebbles while he berates her cooking and her partnership.
Later, in the spring of 1987, nine-year-old Laila awakes, wanting to see the face of her friend Tariq. But Tariq has gone south with his parents and will be away for nearly two weeks. But Laila must maintain her daily routines in Tariq’s absence, and on her way to school, she sees Rasheed and his wife on the street. When she asks her father, Babi, who they are, Babi tells her that it is none of her business. At school, Laila has a difficult time paying attention to her teacher who normally calls her “Inquilabi Girl,” or “Revolutionary Girl.” Laila recalls that Babi has told her from a young age that marriage can wait, but that education cannot. As a result, Laila is proud of her father and his views. That afternoon, Laila’s mother does not arrive to pick her up from school, and one of the neighborhood boys sprays urine on her from a water pistol. When Laila gets home, she finds her mother in bed, the curtains drawn and the room smelling of sweat and unwashed linen. Her mother taps her chest and tells her daughter that she is ailing.
Weeks pass, and in Tariq’s absence, Laila dreams of the many disasters that may have befallen him. Then one night, she sees a small, flashing yellow light from down the street, indicating that Tariq has returned. Apparently, Tariq’s uncle was sick, causing his delay. Laila stays for dinner, loving the easy conversation around his family’s dinner table which is so unlike that of her own family. Babi once told Laila that there is tension between their people—the Tajiks, which are Laila’s people, and the Pashtun’s, Tariq’s. But Laila never feels any of it at Tariq’s house. Back at her own house...
(The entire section is 2418 words.)