The fictions of Khaled Hosseini portray not just a world out of joint—an Afghanistan racked first by conflict with the Soviets and then a civil war—but also, within it, families where unnatural formations are prevalent and guilty secrets harboured. This surfeit of disorder results in extravagant narratives that are always ticking away like timebombs. Disaster is never more than an arm's length away in Hosseini's work, as guns and bombs on the streets, and an insensitive and authoritarian patriarchal culture inside the home, create an atmosphere "of abasement, of degradation and despair".
While Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, rehashes some of the conflict-generation formulas of his debut novel, the bestselling The Kite Runner, the good news is that the writing is more assured, as is some of the characterization, and this is surely a praiseworthy thing. The Kite Runner was a schmaltzy, even insincere, story of two boyhood companions, master and servant, who are actually half-brothers. The book had plot turns you could see coming a mile away, and dull, flat writing that never rose much higher than the base ground of cliché. Indeed, at one point the grown-up narrator, now a successful novelist, even mounts an intriguing defence of clichés—"Because, often, they're dead-on".
The formation of a pair of boys overseen by a powerful father-figure of The Kite Runner is replaced, in A Thousand Splendid Suns, by a pair of striking women in thrall to a sinister husband. Mariam is an illegitimate child, a harami, who is married off when still a teenager to an elderly shoemaker, Rasheed. Mariam is unable bear Rasheed the son he so desperately wants, and is continuously mocked and beaten by him. She recalls her embittered mother's words: "Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman".
When the fighting in Kabul between the forces of rival warlords sparks off an exodus of civilians, Rasheed gives refuge to the attractive teenager Laila, and presses her to marry him. Laila agrees, but only because she bears in her womb the child of her lover, Tariq, destined to become another harami unless she acquiesces. Mariam is relegated to second-best status not just by Rasheed but also by the narrative, which often depicts her from Laila's point of view.
Hosseini is at his best in some of his descriptions of landscape—the secluded pastoral retreat where Mariam grows in the company of her mother, a visit made by Laila and Tariq to the giant Bamiyan Buddhas later blown up by the Taliban - and his account of the developing relationship of the two wives, which begins with hostility and slowly blossoms into a concord. Some of Hosseini's characters, like the demonic Rasheed, still feel more like obstacle courses that must be overcome by his battling protagonists. He still italicizes far too many sentences, and his chapter endings are like an archive of narrative alarm bells. But this is a modestly good and fairly readable work by an improving writer.