Like diamonds and roses hidden under bomb rubble, this is a story of intense beauty and strength buried under the surface of the cruel and capricious life imposed upon two Afghani women. She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below. As a reminder of how people like us suffer, she'd said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us. Staggeringly beautiful and deep and rich and sad and frightening and infuriating. There’s a lot I want to say about this book and so I cry your pardon if this review is a bit of a rambler. You should definitely read this book. I’ll probably repeat this again, but I want to make sure I don’t forget to say it. Buy the book and read it.I love good historical fiction, especially when set in places and/or periods of which I am not very familiar. Afghanistan certainly fit that description, which makes me feel a significant amount of personal shame given how intertwined the country has been with the history of the U.S. over the last 30 years. That same time frame is also the primary focus of the novel so I feel like I got a real taste of the history of this mysterious time. That said, the historical events described in the novel are merely spice for the narrative and are clearly not the entrée at this literary feast. However, I would likely recommend this book for the historical component alone even if I didn’t like the rest of the novel…oh, but I did so much like the rest of the novel. The story revolves around two women, Mariam and Laila, born 20 years apart, but whose lives are intertwined through the events of the novel. Mariam (born in 1959) is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy merchant named Jalil who has 3 wives and 9 “legitimate” children. Mariam’s mother, Nana, was a servant in Jalil’s house whose affair with Jalil resulted in Mariam. As you might expect, the 3 wives were less than enthused and Nana and Mariam were forced to live on the outskirts of town, making Nana a bitter often cruel person to Mariam. The other main character is Laila (born in 1978) who lives in the same area as Mariam. Laila’s story begins with her close friendship with a boy named Tariq who loses a leg to a Soviet land mine when he’s 5 years old. Years later, with Kabul under constant rocket attacks, Laila’s family decides to leave the city. During an emotional farewell, Laila and Tariq make love. Later, as her family is preparing to depart Kabul, a rocket kills her parents and severely injures Laila. I don’t want to spoil the plot by giving away too many details, so let me just say that through a series of mostly tragic circumstances, Mariam and Laila both end up married to a serious scumbag named Rasheed. I want to clarify that last remark because I think it goes to the most chilling aspect of the novel for me. One of the novel’s primary strengths is the bright light the author shines on the nasty way women are treated in countries like Afghanistan. Now not being knowledgeable enough about the culture to make a well-informed analysis, I strongly suspect that the character of Rasheed, while made somewhat worse for dramatic effect, is close enough to what was “the norm” as to be positively sickening. Thus, when I say scumbag (which I whole-heartedly mean), part of the emotional impact of Rasheed’s actions came from my not seeing them as cartoonish, but as part of an “institutional evil” that was all too common. Bottom-line, Rasheed is an ignorant, mean-spirited, petty little pile of assbarf who will make even the most serene and passive reader feel like loading the .45 with hollow points and performing a gunpowder enema on his sorry, wretched chair cushion. Anyway, once Mariam and Laila find themselves together, the story deepens as these two women slowly learn first to live with each other and later to depend upon each other as they face almost daily challenges, mostly from their abusive husband. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies, and sometimes not. The lives of these women is an epic journey in every sense of the word and I felt like I was on a journey of my own as I road along with them. While there is much of darkness and pain throughout the book, Hosseini never allows the emotional tone of the story to descend in melodrama. There is little self-pity or wallowing in grief. There is pain, there is loss but there is no surrender. Instead, these women absorb tremendous blows (both figuratively and literally) and continue to live. There is a great passage near the end of the book that I am going to hide with a spoiler because it reveals the final fate of one of the characters, but it is simply a perfect summation of the strength and dignity that is the heart of this story. (view spoiler)[ Mariam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Mariam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate belongings. (hide spoiler)]
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