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If you are contemplating A Thousand Splendid Suns as your next book to read, then it is highly likely that you have read Hosseini's earlier book The Kite Runner. The Kite Runner is a great book - one of the best I have ever read. I started with the same apprehension people have, when they start reading the follow-up book, after a great first book from an author - Will this book live up to the standards of the previous one? But the fact is that it is as enthralling and moving story as The Kite Runner, if not better - another masterpiece from Hosseini.
This book is similar to The Kite Runner in some aspects - friendship and Afghanistan. Both these novels start around the same point in time - sometime before 1973, when Daoud Khan overthrew the King of Afghanistan to become the president of Afghanistan - and ends at a point in time just after the Taliban was overthrown. This timeline enables the book to feed you with some history of this troubled country through its most troublesome time. There are bits about Daoud Khan's bloodless coup, his and his family's assassination after Soviet invasion, the freedom and education that Afghan women enjoyed during the communist (Soviet) regime, countless young men and women who lost their life in the (holy) struggle against the Soviet - a west sponsored Jihad, eventual withdrawal of Soviets and much celebrated victory of Jihad and the Mujahedeen, how the infighting between Mujahdeen left Kabul as a city where rockets and gunfire are part of daily life (and death), rise and eventual takeover of Taliban - the darkest time for Afghan women and finally, the fall of Taliban.
The core of the book is not really about Afghan history. Its about two women - set apart by a generation, their unlikely friendship, suffering and eventual redemption. Mariam is an illegitimate child born to a wealthy business man and his housemaid in Herat - a north western city in Afghanistan, bordering Iran. Her father Jalil, who cannot legitimise her for the fears of a societal fallout (he was already married thrice with a number of children), provides for the mother and daughter and keeps them away in a remote hut outside Herat. He visits them every Thursday, for which Mariam longs for. Mariam's life was pretty much event-less till she was 15 - alone with her mother, who abuses her as a Harami (illegitimate child), father who visits every week and a affectionate Mullah (a teacher, who teaches Islam) who visits the hut to teach her lessons of Koran. One fine day, when she went inside Herat to meet Jalil against her mothers wishes, her life took a serious turn that lead to her unendurable suffering and the friendship with Laila.
Laila was born in Kabul just around the time that the communists took over Afghanistan, which is roughly 20 years after Mariam was born. She had a much nicer family - a university educated father who was a teacher, a cheerful mother and two elder brothers. When her brothers decided to join the Jihad against the communists, the life in the family took a turn for the worst. It had lead to a great depression and mental instability to her mother. Her father was fired from his job by the communists. Even then, she had a lot better childhood compared to Mariam with a good primary education and an affectinate father - most of all she had her best friend, Tariq. Her life took the serious turn when the infighting among Mujahideens led Tariq's family to leave Afghanistan and her own parents to die in a rocket-fire.
The story unfolds in parts from the perspectives of Mariam and Laila - such a storeytelling technique works wonderfully well for this book. The characters seem so real and believable. Even though the settings of the story are so foreign and difficult to imagine (for example, "everytime there is a whistling sound overhead, it is the sound of an approaching rocket"), author makes us feel the characters' reactions and responses are genuine.
About the audiobook rendering :
I have actually "listened to" this book. The audio-book was read by Atossa Leoni. She has done a wonderful job with her tone, which fits the moody style of the book very well. She has also done a great job in keeping a different accent throughout the book - I guess that's how an Afghan accent would sound, at least it sounded similar to Khaled Hosseini , who actually read the audio-book of The Kite Runner.
All in all, a great book. I would recommend it to any one, who doesn't mind a few dark and painful (depressing) passages in the story.