Tag Archives: Khaled Hosseini

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 Kite Runner: Predictable

   

The Kite Runner does everything according to convention and so deserves, then, to be as popular as it is; yet I find myself resisting, find myself reluctant to recommend it, refusing to call it an unquestionably ‘good book.’ I hope this isn’t a case of elitism, a belief that my tastes might be too refined for populism, but I leave that open as a possibility.

Instead I’ll suggest that the book lacks imagination. Sure it’s plot has “twists,” but they are twists this reader could see coming, or when they were “surprising” felt (obnoxiously) like the only possibility in a book that must follow the particular arc of redemption. Plot events come burdened with symbolism – everything that happens reads as though accompanied by swelling music – and character decisions are fraught with the burden of Here Our Character Meets a Crossroads and Will He Be Redeemed? This is a complaint then that the book lacks nuance, it lacks subtly, it lacks – and this is a hard thing to articulate with example – it lacks confidence. It reads as a perfectly workshopped novel that refuses to take risks. It picks a plot arc, picks a character flaw, picks a conflict and adheres – with an admirable tenacity, I suppose – to these devices. But it does leave the reader with a frustrating case of predictability.

Amir, our protagonist, the admitted coward and first person narrator, also lacks sympathy. We’re meant (I think) to dislike him a little for his childhood weakness, but I suspect we’re also meant to root for his redemption. Except at no point in the novel am I convinced that his redemption is worthwhile, or that he wants to be redeemed, or that if redeemed, he’ll do anything differently. And these options are perhaps a little too laden with interest, too laden because I really didn’t care much what happened to Amir one way or the other. That I read the scene of his near death with an abstracted indifference is not my failing, but rather the failing of a novel that has a (remarkably) detached first person narrator who fails – at every opportunity – to deepen or complicate his character. Much of this falls out because he describes his responses “I felt sad,” rather than showing them in actions, and so he can only ever be a surface character; but it may also be that we’re never given the chance to see his vulnerability – the effect of a dual chronology – as we already know the outcome of his actions.

So sure, The Kite Runner has enough action to read quickly, it has enough symbolism to read as Important, and a setting that makes it relevant to readers in the West trying to understand the “barbarism” of the Taliban (as if it is only these murderous monsters who sexually abuse boys, or these beastly Muslims who oppress women). But it does it all too neatly and too nervously. It is a beautiful narrative body without a narrative soul.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Prize Winner