04 April 2010

The Big Blogging Book Club - first review

 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 Kabul.  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.

 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 Afghanistan. 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.

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 Afghanistan. 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.

Over to LilyIrish MammyJBBC,  MagnumLadyEdieSmurfetteJenCatherineLorna, and Marian. They may have very different views!


Kirsty said...

Interesting review!

"I...it seems to me to condone and validate the arrival of the American army and in a way, the western way of life."
I agree - I think what Hosseini was trying to get across is that the arrival of the Americans was seen as a liberation - but to highlight that that's not how it's turned out. After all - it's the Americans who armed the Talib in the first place, to get rid of the Soviets.

I must say, I did empathize with the women - particularly Laila. I didn't feel that the book was anti-female - I agreed with Lily, that a central theme was the over-riding strength of women. That said - you're totally right about the bad mothering!!

Lorna said...

OOh, I enjoyed your review. I agree with your point that it seemed to state that Western intervention was necessary to sort them all out and your points re both main characters having mothers that suffered from depression. I felt Laila's characterisation was much better than Mariam's, I enjoyed reading her pieces more and it almost came as a surprise when the book mentioned another severe beating by Rasheed as I almost expected her to be strong enough to withstand it.
The ending was the most disappointing part of the book for me but having said that, I did enjoy it.

Cathy said...

Even though my review may sound a bit harsh, I must say I did not find the book hard to read, and did not have to struggle to keep at it, I was just a bit disappointed. Bear in mind that I read it about 3 weeks ago, and my feelings about it are what remains after that time. I was left with the feeling that I would have liked to have liked it better, if you know what I mean...

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your review, it's great to read another opinion.
I love the idea that you make notes while you are reading....I should try that. I finished the book two weeks ago and have read a few after it...so it's not as fresh in my mind as it should have been.
The only thing I didn't really like was the ending, it sort of just 'fizzled' out.

Lily said...

Cathy, I was really looking forward to your review because I knew from a comment you had left on a previous post, that you hadn't really liked it. As you saw from my review, I really enjoyed it.
I enjoyed Mariam and Laila as I felt they were strong women. I was also very interested in the relationship between Laila and Tariq.

I love our differing views. If we didn't have that, then it wouldn't be half as interesting having a book club.

My criticism of the book was that it ended a bit too neatly.

Additionally Laila had endured a brutal husband, drought, starvation in Afghanistan yet seemed easily discontent when she, Tariq and the children moved to Pakistan. I thought about this for a bit. I felt sometimes we are able to rise to big challenges in life far better than small.

Unknown said...

Sent my comment before adding hope you are having a nice Easter. Just been visiting everyone's blog. It really is very interesting the different aspects people bring out in the various reviews. I love the discussion.

Eating Ethnic with Edie said...

I love your review because I, too, struggled with the book a little. Of course, part of that is because I waited until Friday to start the book. I also thoroughly enjoyed the first section that focused on Miriam. When the book shifted to Laila, I was a little lost at first because I wasn't sure where she fit into the story. I kept feeling like I was missing something. Thankfully, I kept reading and the various sections of the book began to blend together.

Happy Easter!

Marie Ennis said...

`Loved your review! While I enjoyed the book, I can also really see what would lead you to feel this way about it too. It would be really boring if we all felt the same way! Also agree with you when you say that it is a totally different way of reading when you know you are going to review the book.

Anonymous said...

Heya Cathy

I like the point about the lack of strong female characters - definately agree Mariam's quarter was strongest!

Irish Mammy said...

Great review, interestingly I said the same thing I would have liked to have read this story from a real woman's viewpoint. I agree also about the one-dimensionalism but I think that partly rectifies itself midway through. Still I do think that it is a worthwhile window to open into the lifes and oppressions of Afghan women. I hope it spurns on women writers to use their voice and tell us how it really was for them. BTW like your idea of taking notes as you go along as what I found is being distracted by 2 toddlers it's difficult to keep my thoughts in check. Will do it next time x

Photographe à Dublin said...

Thanks for sharing this review, Cathy.

There was a discussion on radio recently about "Writing Workshop Aesthetic" and many of the novels that are read in groups these days seem to be written in a recognisable formula.

I liked the film "The Kite Runner" but had little patience with the book and I think your review will save me energy as I'll look elsewhere for reading material.

You might enjoy this site:


Reading groups are interesting as one is compelled to read writers from so many different backgrounds.

Shall look forward to your next review.

Jenny Doyle said...

Hiya. Just to let you know my review for this month's bloggers book club can be found at: