Hosseini’s Past and Future

by Dean Mattson

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Khaled Hosseini has hinted that his next book is going to be based somewhere other than Afghanistan, so it’s going to be interesting to see how he pulls that off.

It’s not as if the settings of his first two books (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) are the only reason they’re worth reading, although that didn’t hurt. They came out when Hosseini’s home country was the subject of a great deal of curiosity among Americans following 9/11, when we were wondering if the people that lived there were anything like us. The Kite Runner clearly showed that they were; that Afghanistan was a country with a rich history and proud, civilized people.

It’s just that the country is so integral to these books. They don’t merely inform the situations, but the whole outlook and language and the very motivations of the characters. There’s no way these stories could have taken place anywhere else.

I also wonder if it doesn’t mask Hosseini’s flaws as a writer. For example, there’s an event near the end of The Kite Runner that hits you like a sledgehammer. I’m not going to give anything away here, but, yes, it is that abrupt. After going through so much with the characters, when problems start being resolved and you get the feeling that the book is about to sail towards a happy ending, then – BAM! – the book plummets you with one more event which greatly complicates the ending.

There’s been a lot of debate on whether this particular event is dramatically justified or even believable. It’s especially hard for Westerners to judge because few of us have experienced those types of events. Personally, I happen to think that even though it may be plausible, I still think it’s a blemish on an otherwise perfect book. To that point, the story had me entirely hooked as something that seemed totally realistic and that seemed more like a writerly manipulation.

So much so that I was bracing myself for a similar surprise at the end of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which thankfully didn’t happen. Where The Kite Runner focused on it’s male characters, Suns is told from the point of view of two Afghan women. Like it’s predecessor, it paints a bright picture of Afghanistan’s past before it vividly illustrates the brutality of the last thirty years, as the country gets torn apart, first by gangs of armed thugs and then by gangs of fundamentalist Islamic zealots.

What’s unique about Hosseini’s books is that they read very much like thrillers. Rare among books with literary aspirations, his books have a lot of twists and turns in them. Sometimes you wish he’d actually slow down a little so you could catch a breath before the tension is ratcheted up again.

Finally there’s a mythic quality in Hosseini’s writing that I hope is going to make the jump to his next book. He writes in broad stokes about big themes. Take this passage from near the end of A Thousand Splendid Suns:

When they first came back to Kabul, it distressed Laila that she didn’t know where the Taliban had buried Mariam. She wished she could visit Mariam’s grave, to sit with her awhile, leave a flower or two. But Laila sees now that it doesn’t matter. Mariam is never very far. She is here, in these walls they’ve repainted, in the trees they’ve planted, in the blankets that keep the children warm, in these pillows and books and pencils. She is in the children’s laughter. She is in the verses Aziza recites and in the prayers she mutters when she bows westward. But, mostly, Mariam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.

Especially with that last line, it’s hard to imagine that those words could be written from the point-of-view of a contemporary American character, for instance. It’ll be interesting to see if Hosseini can adapt his style. I know I’ll be reading to find out.