A few weeks ago, Lily launched the idea of a blogging book club, and I jumped in, delighted to have a reason for reading. Not that I don’t read. I read lots and lots and lots of books, and articles, and blogs, but all this reading doesn’t leave much time for current fiction, and I tend to go straight for my favourites, the crime novels, or young adults fiction. I had however been aware of the book chosen for this month, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. The cover itself is striking, all in shades of yellow and orange, with the outline of a woman walking on high heels on uneven terrain.
So this was my first book club read, and it turns out you don’t read in the same way when it is just for pleasure and when you feel you have to talk about the book. My technique this time, totally unplanned and unprepared, was to read, think about it as I was reading, close the book and note down my thoughts and feelings about the book. Then, let it rest for a week or two, and write a blog post. Not necessarily the best way to approach the task, as it turns out, because all that remained was a resounding “bof”, which is the French for “I can’t say I like this, I am a bit underwhelmed, it’s not that I hated it, it was just very disappointing”. This is generally used in relation to a new dish you have prepared and which does not meet your family’s unreasonably high standards, or a film that everyone has seen and loved and that does not get a seal of approval from your film-buff brother, much to your annoyance.
A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is the story of two women and a country, and therein I think lies the problem; this is a very ambitious project, spanning decades of history, from war lords to Russian invasion to mujahedeens to Talibans to Americans, and the history part is very interesting. The stories, however, do not match this ambitious task, and I felt that they could not carry the historical aspect.
The stories are told in several parts, each concentrating on one of the women. Mariam is born the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man in a country town, and her mother lives alone with her, in a clearing near a village, bitter and lonely, slowly sinking into deep depression. The first part of the book is dedicated to her early story, and to be honest, I felt that was the best part of the book, nearly a stand-alone novella, until the time when her father’s wives give her away to an older man from
. The other story belongs to Laila, a much younger woman whom we first meet as a young girl in the neighbourhood where Mariam lives with the mean and violent Rasheed. The child has a sweetheart, Tariq, who has lost a leg on a landmine. Her family is torn by the war, her brothers go to fight with Massoud, which plunges her mother into a deep depression (yes, I know, this seems to be what happens to mothers here). Having lost everything, pregnant with Tariq’s child, Laila accepts to become the second wife of the mean and violent Rasheed. I won’t give away the end, but it seems to me to condone and validate the arrival of the American army and in a way, the western way of life. Kabul
But, to be honest, this is not what bothered me about the book. Nor did the plot, although I sometimes felt that a less heavy-handed approach would have better highlighted the plight of women in
. My problem was with the characters. I did not empathize with any of them, not for one minute; the voice of the narrator put a distance between the reader and the character of the women, I felt I was watching them from afar, and that they were one-dimensional, they lacked depth, as if they were silhouettes of women on a background of a world in turmoil. Afghanistan
Their plight seemed caused by that turmoil, but also by the very bad mothers they had. And in a book about the plight of women, there was a distinct lack of strong female character. When I closed the book, I felt that, like the country where it was set, the book did not think much of women.
If I hadn’t read it for a bookclub, this is a book I would have finished, mostly because it is set in
. At the end, I probably would have wished I had read a very good documentary piece on the life of women in Kabul, with the voices of real women coming through, talking about their daily life, anxieties and fears, but also aspirations and daily struggles. Afghanistan