Tag Archives: Afghanistan

A Thousand Splendid Suns: I Just Don’t Believe in Happy Endings

I can’t explain it. I’m an optimist. An obnoxiously optimistic optimist, like I’ve had to consciously learn how to listen to folks when they’re having a problem and just say ‘that sucks’ rather than ‘oh oh! here’s why there’s a silver lining to your total misery.’ So how can it be that I’m so irritated by happy endings? I don’t find them plausible. Sure, I appreciate that sometimes things work out, but mostly? no. Which, okay, is at odds with my claim to optimism. Maybe it’s just that my outrageously privileged life has led me to believe that things will (mostly) work out for *me*, even while they mostly do *not* work out for other people/the world.

So cue my dissatisfaction with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which *spoiler* has a ‘happy’ (well happy-ish) ending. Don’t confuse the happy-ish ending with a happy story. The book is full to bursting with very difficult scenes of domestic abuse – many of which I ended up skimming over because I found the level of detail to be too much for me. And there are all kinds of moments of pain, grief, loss, disappointment, betrayal. So maybe Hosseini felt like after making the reader – and the characters – suffer through all that they do, they/we were owed a happy-ish ending? To me it just wasn’t plausible, though, that after all that had happened, that things would end out working out as they did,

Anyway – broad strokes, the book follows Mariam and Laila through thirty-odd years of Afghan history. I appreciated the historical fiction aspects, as I’ll admit to a spotty-to-non-existent understanding of pre-2000 Afghan history. Both characters are reasonably well drawn, and their particular motivations and interests thought through, though I would say that Laila is the more believable of the two. Mariam reads as a little underdeveloped, particularly in her transition from downtrodden wife to heroic sister/friend. Similarly, Rasheed, the abusive husband/father felt like a caricature to me. I’m not expecting a sympathetic portrait of a violent, abusive, volatile man. At the same time, I might have believed his character more if there was some nuance to his actions.

The effect of these somewhat underdeveloped characters was to have me doubt the reliability of the rest of the narrative. What I mean is that because I didn’t fully believe in the reality of the characters, I doubted the veracity of the rest of the narrative. Like if these characters were caricatures, maybe the depiction of Afghan life under the Taliban was being similarly reduced to its most extreme or most recognized elements. What I will say about that doubt, was that the reading prompted me to read more non-fiction to find out how closely the narrative followed ‘actual’ events and circumstances, so perhaps there’s a silver lining there…

And there we go. Full circle. A book I didn’t really like that I am – optimistically – suggesting might have some merit after all.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Illuminations: Beautiful doesn’t always mean you like it.

dishesI’ve recently started a book club. It’s given me an occasion to talk to my mum, J., about the book club she’s been a part of for the past 30+ years (how long?). She was giving me advice (solicited, this time) on how her book club operates. They each rate the book, but with the rule (enforced?) that the rating cannot take into account the balance of “well, I found the book beautiful, *but* it just didn’t resonate with me.” That is to say, the rating has to be on your overall impression of the book in ways that don’t allow for separating out the well-crafted sentence from the one that moves you.

This blog sometimes feels to me like this kind of exercise in declaring my overall impression of a book. And in the case of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations I find it difficult to do so. I didn’t like the book – I’ll come right out with that – but not for any reason I can find to pin down. It’s beautifully written. It addresses complex and nuanced questions about nationalism, identity, memory, gender and maternity. It focuses on provocative settings: the 2001- war in Afghanistan (how do Western soldiers understand their involvement – as a game? a proxy? What counts as “real” violence?), a retirement home (what are the limits of independence and community? what do we owe our parents and what do they owe us?) and the remembered – or misremembered – scenes of an aging woman with dementia (what can she know about her own life? how is her identity reconstituted by those who know her now – and then?).

I wonder if my own over-attachment to character is what gets in the way the novel resonating with me. I say that because the novel shares the focus on the characters (the soldier, the grandmother, the children, the neighbours). And so while complex, human and empathetic, I found myself at a loss to work out who I was best meant to identify and attach to, who I was meant to care about their conflict and change. I suppose a different reader (a better reader?) might be able to see this richness in character as an opportunity – all the more to engage with! – rather than a drawback.

But according to the rules of book club, at least J’s book club, I have to say that I didn’t like the book.

One final note to end on: I love reading the acknowledgement sections of any novel. I like imagining how the novel I’ve just read was built and shared by a community of people. On occasion I recognize names in the sort of recognize a who’s-who. So when I read in the plot of the novel a reference to the university I attended, I imagined while reading who I might know who had come into contact with the characters (or author). Delight then, in reading in the acknowledgements that one of my favourite, certainly most influential, professors M. was in the acknowledgements. I suppose I should be surprised – the feminist elements, focus on photography, interest in the every day should have given me the clues as I was reading. But there you go. So hooray to M. for her involvement in this beautiful book. That I just happened to not like very much.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner