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Khaled Hosseini’s fiction is inspired by his memories of growing up in pre-Soviet-controlled Afghanistan and Iran, and of the people who influenced him as a child. His debut novel, The Kite Runner, introduces readers to life in the pre-Soviet Afghanistan of the author’s childhood and honors his memories of the servant Hossein Khan, a member of the Hazara people who worked in the Hosseini household during their years in Tehran and taught the young Hosseini to read and write. Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, follows thirty years of tumultuous Afghan history, a history torn by civil war, the rise of the Taliban. It also describes the lives of two women who work to sustain their families, friendships, and hope for the future despite challenging circumstances. As Barbara Hoffert noted in a Library Journal review, A Thousand Splendid Suns ”proves that one can write a successful follow-up after debuting with a phenomenal best seller.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Exiled by Turmoil
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965, the son of a diplomat father and teacher mother. When the Afghan Foreign Ministry assigned Hosseini’s father to Iran in 1970, his family accompanied him and lived in Tehran until 1973. That year, Afghan king Zahir Shah was overthrown in a bloodless coup, leaving the government unstable and the country vulnerable. In 1976, the family moved to Paris, again on diplomatic assignment. They were still living there in 1980 when the Afghan government fell in a bloody communist coup and Soviet troops took control of Afghanistan.
The Hosseinis were granted political asylum in the United States and moved to San Jose, California. Arriving in their new country with nothing, the Hosseini family relied on welfare before their financial condition improved. Fifteen years old at the time of his arrival in the United States, Hosseini eventually trained as a physician. Writing remained his main love, however, and he worked on The Kite Runner, his first novel, when he was not working as a medical internist at a Los Angeles hospital. In 2003, The Kite Runner, was published and quickly became an international bestseller in forty-eight countries. It sold 1.25 million copies in paperback, largely due to word of mouth and its inclusion in innumerable book-group reading lists at a time when sales of fiction were reportedly low. Four years later, the film adaptation of the novel was nominated for an Academy Award.
Spanning four decades, The Kite Runner is narrated by Amir, a writer living in California. Amir begins his story with his affluent childhood in Kabul, where the quiet, motherless boy yearns for attention from his busy father, Baba, and finds a friend in Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. Eventually, Amir and Hassan are separated—emotionally, by a traumatic attack against
Hassan, and geographically, when Amir’s father is relocated. Amir flees Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, settling in the Bay Area of California and eventually becoming a successful writer. Though the story is fiction, it is clearly shaped by Hosseini’s childhood memories of Kabul and the relationships he developed when young.
A Return to the Homeland
A trip to Kabul in 2003, the year The Kite Runner was published, provided Hosseini with the inspiration for his second novel. As he explained to Louise Ermelino in Publishers Weekly, he witnessed Afghan women ”walking down the street, wearing burqa, with five or six children, begging.” Talking to these women, Hosseini heard stories that both shocked and saddened him: ”One woman told me she was the wife of a policeman who hadn’t been paid in six months. The family was starving, so she sent her children out to beg.” These stories were the germ, the starting point, for Hosseini’s next novel.
In 2006 Hosseini, himself a former Afghan refugee, was named a goodwill envoy to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This humanitarian organization, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, provides shelter, protection, emergency food, medical care, and other necessities to those who have been forced to abandon their homes due to violence, persecution, or war. The U.S. office of the organization recognized The Kite Runner’s impact by naming Hosseini the 2006 Humanitarian of the Year. Hosseini returned to Afghanistan as a UNHCR envoy in September of 2007, just four months after his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was published. Taking its title from a seventeenth-century poem by Saibe-Tabrizi, which praises the cultured and ancient city of Kabul, the novel chronicles forty-five years of Afghan history, including the country’s occupation by Soviet forces and the subsequent fundamentalist Islamic rule of the Taliban. Hosseini uses the relationship between two very different women, wives to the same brutal man, to shine a light on the plight of contemporary Afghan women and makes them the focus of the novel’s heartbreaking story. A Thousand Splendid Suns was favorably compared to The Kite Runner and matched the first novel’s critical and popular success. Booklist gave the novel a starred review and said, ”Readers who lost themselves in The Kite Runner will not want to miss this unforgettable follow-up.”
Works in Literary Context
Hosseini’s two novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have garnered widespread popular and critical praise. Noted for their style as well as their subject matter, Hosseini’s novels inspired readers to become interested in the people of Afghanistan in a way no other works of contemporary fiction or nonfiction were able to do in the first decade of the twenty-first century. To keep his wartime stories from being too depressing, Hosseini relies on elements of melodrama to balance the mood. Known for his simple prose style, the author writes stories that resonate with audiences from many cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.
Hope in Wartime
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, two victimized but courageous female characters are forced to endure unspeakable daily suffering at home and in public. With the rise of the Taliban, their difficult lives become even more challenging, yet they find ways to endure. Hosseini provides detailed glimpses of normalcy and everyday living that remind the reader that this novel is as much about life as it is about war. Amidst the cruelty and death, the characters find ways to ease their suffering.
Defined as the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization, melodrama usually carries negative connotations. Critics, though, have found that Hosseini’s melodramatic flourishes work in his favor in both his novels, perhaps due to the novels’ weighty subject matter. In The Kite Runner, melodramatic touches include such stereotypical story lines as the father who wants his son to be a doctor instead of a writer, and who wants his son to fight back instead of cowering. A despicable villain and a saintly sidekick are two of the more stereotypical characters found in melodrama. The last two appear in A Thousand Splendid Suns, this time as a brutal husband and his young, beautiful bride, respectively. Critics have faulted Hosseini for his one-dimensional characters, yet note that the melodrama usually gives way to intimate renderings of everyday Afghani life.
Works in Critical Context
Hosseini’s two novels have received widespread critical and popular success. Employing a largely melodramatic style to tell heartbreaking stories set against the backdrop of war, Hosseini is known for his deft portrayal of the complexities of human nature. His reliance on simple prose lends his stories a graceful power that has become something of a trademark.
The Kite Runner
”Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation,” wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic in a review of The Kite Runner. This reviewer added that the novel also serves up ”a rich slice of Afghan culture.” Edward Hower wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the author’s ”depiction of prerevolutionary Afghanistan is rich in warmth and humor but also tense with the friction between the nation’s different ethnic groups.” ”The novel’s canvas turns dark when Hosseini describes the suffering of his country under the tyranny of the Taliban,” Hower continued, noting that ”the final third of the book is full of haunting images.” School Library Journal reviewer Penny Stevens called The Kite
Runner a ”beautifully written first novel,” and a Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed the book ”stunning. It is rare that a book is at once so timely and of such high literary quality.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Described by a Publishers Weekly contributor as ”another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil,” A Thousand Splendid Suns brings to life the brutal treatment endured by women in the repressive patriarchy promoted by Taliban culture, while also presenting what the Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed a ”lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of [his]… resilient characters.” ”Unimaginably tragic, Hosseini’s magnificent second novel is a sad and beautiful testament to both Afghani suffering and strength,” concluded Booklist contributor Kristine Huntley, and a Kirkus Reviews writer noted that A Thousand Splendid Suns ”is never depressing.” Praising Hosseini’s prose as ”simple and unadorned,” Barbara Hoffert, in her Library Journal review, observed that the author ”deftly sketches the history of his native land,” creating a ”heartbreaking” and ”highly recommended” tale.
- Huntley, Kristine. Review of The Kite Runner. Booklist (July 2003): 1864.
- Review of The Kite Runner. Kirkus Reviews (May 1,2003): 630.
- Hoffert, Barbara. Review of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Library Journal (March 14, 2007): 58.
- Hower, Edward. Review of The Kite Runner. New York Times Book Review (August 3, 2003): 4.
- Ermelino, Louisa. Interview with Khaled Hosseini. Publishers Weekly (March 19, 2007): 34.
- O’Brien, James. Review of The Kite Runner. Times Literary Supplement (October 10, 2003): 25.
- The 2008 Time 100: Khaled Hosseini. Retrieved September 27, 2008, from http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1733748_1733752_1735971,00.html.
- O’Rourke, Meghan. Do I Really Have to Read The Kite Runner? Retrieved September 27, 2008, from http://www.slate.com/id/2123280/.
- Khaled Hosseini Online. A Thousand Splendid Suns Retrieved September 27, 2008, from http:// www.khaledhosseini.com/index2.htm.
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