Mariam is born as an illegitimate child between her mother and Jalil, a rich businessman who lives in the city. Her and her mother are cast out to live in the outskirts of town so Jalil can save face and not have a public display of his mistakes. After her mother succumbs to her mental trauma, Jalil forces Mariam to marry a shoemaker in Kabul, sending her away yet again.
Rasheed, the shoemaker, is a despicable man. He forces Mariam to do all the housework, not leave the house without him, and to wear a burqa when she does go outside. Rasheed’s physical and emotional torment never relents.
Laila lives right down the street from Mariam in Kabul. She is a bright young girl with a decent life. Her biggest concern in life is not getting caught kissing her romantic interest, Tariq. Until mortars come down from the sky, that is, destroying everything she loves in life. In the midst of tragedy, she is also forced to marry Rasheed and live alongside Mariam.
Although Mariam despises Laila at the start, a deep and sincere bond forms, forged by the shared pain inflicted upon them by Rasheed’s fists, belt, and threats.
Mariam is isolated for her entire life. She grows up in a little hut in the outskirts of Harat with just her mother who doesn’t let anyone else near. Her father never really takes her in. When she moves to Kabul, Rasheed makes sure that she is kept busy cleaning up after him and his friends. Rasheed also makes her wear a burqa when she is outside, physically separating her from everyone outside of her home. She is also unable to have children and so the only human connection she has in Kabul is her abusive husband.
When Laila marries Rasheed and moves in, everything changes. After some initial resentment, Mariam and Laila form a deep connection. After Laila has children, Mariam finally feels like she is part of a real family and gladly takes on a motherly role to Laila and her children, protecting them from Rasheed when she can.
She recognized that she was stuck with no way out and she never wanted that life for anyone else. She had so many opportunities to make Laila suffer like she herself did but she protected Laila and wanted a new life for them, going so far as to kill Rasheed and take the fall for it so they can escape.
Mariam is also at other people’s service for the whole story, and never really gets to pursue her own wants or dreams. She bends to the will of Rasheed and serves him out of fear of repercussions. As part of her motherly role, she is at the service of Laila and her children except it is purely out of love and affection. She does what she must all the way up to the end of her life when she is about to be killed:
“Kneel here, hamshira. And look down.”
One last time, Mariam did as she was told.
I was rooting for Mariam the entire time but she just kept getting beat down and repressed. She was not in control of her own life and I so badly wanted her to be happy after all of the nightmares she was put through. Even so, the joy and love she feels with Laila and the children outweigh all the pain she has experienced:
Though there had been moments of beauty in it, Mariam knew that life for the most part had been unkind to her. But as she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of it.
There are similar themes between this book and The Great Alone. Both involve an abusive husband/father that oppresses and abuses the women in his life. The violence and time span of A Thousand Splendid Suns was just so much more gut-wrenching and unrelenting. The female characters in The Great Alone were much different. They were strong, independent, and triumphed over challenges. While the women in A Thousand Splendid Suns were strong and persevered in their own way, they were so utterly oppressed that they couldn’t ever come out on top.
What a wonderfully painful book. A Thousand Splendid Suns is chock-full of loss, grief, pain, and sadness but I found myself wanting to read more. I kept turning the page in hope for some good fortune for Laila and Mariam. If you are looking for an emotionally challenging book, I highly recommend it.