What a wonderful follow up to The Kite Runner, but this time this story of Afghanistan is told through its women. Mum and I both loved this when it was first published in 2007, and her copy is dated January 2008. I have enjoyed re reading it more than I can express; although I again found it very disturbing in its depiction of the brutality of the regime and of the men, especially the particularly nasty and unpleasant Rasheed, husband to the two women who tell the story.
We begin with Mariam’s childhood on the outskirts of Herat, the plain, illegitimate only daughter of her bullying, epileptic mother. She lives for the visits her charming but insincere father makes, and for her lessons with the local mullah, a kindly man. Her bitter and resentful mother does her best to erode any hope Mariam might have for her future by continually reminding her that as a female and illegitimate to boot, she basically has nothing to hope for, with comments such as, ‘like a compass needle that points north, a mans accusing finger always finds a woman’, but the young Mariam still dreams of a day when she may live with her fathers other children and go to his cinema.
Everything unravels and Mariam realises the truth behind her mothers bitter words when she runs away to Herat to see her father, is shunned by him, and returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Forced to take her in, her father and his wives quickly marry her off to the revolting Rasheed, thirty years older than her, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul with rotting teeth who immediately makes fifteen year old Mariam wear a burqa, and when she fails to provide him with a child, treats her with contempt and brutality.
This continues through fifteen years of Afghan history, during which the Russians leave, the mujaheddin take over, a bloody struggle ensues between tribes, and the Taliban assume control…and that is really a massive precis, Mr Hossain paints an illuminating picture of the tumultuous political backdrop to the lives of his characters.
Laila is the beautiful, wilful and educated daughter of an intellectual father and an unbalanced mother; her brothers die fighting the Russians, her boyfriend loses a leg to a landmine, and at fourteen, she finds herself orphaned by a rocket strike on her home. Worse, she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Tariq, who has fled to Pakistan with his family, and, convinced he is dead, she becomes Rasheed’s second wife, passing off the baby as his.
Initially at odds with one another, after baby Aziza is born Mariam and Laila develop a deep, mutually supportive relationship, allied by their fear of their husband and the daily struggle to survive in an increasingly terrifying Kabul. Mariam’s mothers words haunt her as one man after another points an accusing finger at them, and the frightening reality of life under the Taliban is brought home when Laila has her second child by C section with no anaesthetic.
The story is, as with the Kite Runner, a tale of a deep relationship against the backdrop of the turmoil that has characterised the recent history of Afghanistan. It tells of the resources these women find to enable them to survive the terrifying realities of their lives. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the West, the freedoms we take for granted. And, as you may not yet have read it, I am saying nothing about the ending!
As always, now I have read it again I am gifting Mum’s copy forward, and if you would like to add this marvellous novel to your own bookshelf, please get in touch either here or on the facebook page @mumsbooks and I will be delighted to send it to you. Here is a link to it on Amazon if its gone and you feel the need to purchase it!