The title of the book comes from a line in the Josephine Davis translation of the poem "Kabul", by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi:
"Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls"
In an interview, Khaled Hosseini explains, "I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul, for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when I found this particular verse. I realized that I had found not only the right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase 'a thousand splendid suns,' which appears in the next-to-last stanza."
When asked what led him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women, Hosseini responded:
"I had been entertaining the idea of writing a story of Afghan women for some time after I'd finished writing The Kite Runner. That first novel was a male-dominated story. All the major characters, except perhaps for Amir's wife Soraya, were men. There was a whole facet of Afghan society which I hadn't touched on in The Kite Runner, an entire landscape that I felt was fertile with story ideas...In the spring of 2003, I went to Kabul, and I recall seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change. I remember watching them walking in pairs up the street, trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had brought them to that point...I spoke to many of those women in Kabul. Their life stories were truly heartbreaking...When I began writing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found myself thinking about those resilient women over and over. Though no one woman that I met in Kabul inspired either Laila or Mariam, their voices, faces, and their incredible stories of survival were always with me, and a good part of my inspiration for this novel came from their collective spirit."
Hosseini disclosed that in some ways, A Thousand Splendid Suns was more difficult to write than his first novel, The Kite Runner. This is partly because when he penned The Kite Runner, "no one was waiting for it." He also found his second novel to be more "ambitious" than the first due to its larger number of characters, its dual focus on Mariam and Laila, and its covering of a multi-generational-period of nearly forty-five-years. However, he stated, "As I began to write, as the story picked up pace and I found myself immersed in the world of Mariam and Laila, these apprehensions vanished on their own. The developing story captured me and enabled me to tune out the background noise and get on with the business of inhabiting the world I was creating." The characters "took on a life of their own" at this point and "became very real for [him]".
Similar to The Kite Runner, the manuscript had to be extensively revised; Hosseini divulged that he ultimately wrote the book five times before it was complete. The novel's anticipated release was first announced in October 2006, when it was described as a story about "family, friendship, faith and the salvation to be found in love".
The novel centers on two women, Mariam and Laila, how their lives become intertwined after a series of drastic events, and their subsequent friendship and support for each other in the backdrop of Kabul in the 20th and 21st century. It is split into four parts that focus on individual stories: Part one is about Mariam, part two is on Laila, part three is on the relationship between the two women, and Laila's life with Tariq is in part four. The last section also happens to be the only part written in the present tense.
Mariam lives in a kolba on the outskirts of Herat with her embittered mother. Jalil, her father, is a wealthy businessman who owns a cinema and lives in the town with three wives and nine children. Mariam is his illegitimate daughter, and she is prohibited to live with them, but Jalil visits her every Thursday. On her fifteenth birthday, Mariam wants her father to take her to see Pinocchio at his movie theater, against the pleas of her mother. When he does not show up, she hikes into town and goes to his house. He refuses to see her, and she ends up sleeping on the street. In the morning, Mariam returns home to find that her mother has committed suicide out of fear that her daughter had deserted her. Mariam is then taken to live in her father's house. Jalil arranges for her to be married to Rasheed, a shoemaker from Kabul who is thirty-years her senior. In Kabul, Mariam becomes pregnant seven successive times, but is never able to carry a child to term. This is a sad, disquieting reality for both Rasheed and Mariam. Ultimately Rasheed grows more and more despondent over his wife's inability to have a child and particularly a son. As their marriage wears on Rasheed gradually becomes more and more abusive.
Part Two introduces Laila. She is a girl growing up in Kabul who is close friends with Tariq, a boy living in her neighborhood. They eventually develop a romantic relationship despite being aware of the social boundaries between men and women in Afghan society. War comes to Afghanistan, and Kabul is bombarded by rocket attacks. Tariq's family decides to leave the city, and the emotional farewell between Laila and Tariq culminates with them making love. Laila's family also decides to leave Kabul, but as they are packing a rocket destroys the house, killing her parents and severely injuring Laila. Laila is subsequently taken in by Rasheed and Mariam.
After recovering from her injuries, Laila discovers that she is pregnant with Tariq's child. After being informed by Abdul Sharif that Tariq has died, she agrees to marry Rasheed, a man eager to have a young and attractive second wife in hopes of having a son with her. When Laila gives birth to a daughter, Aziza, Rasheed is displeased and suspicious. This results in him becoming abusive towards Laila. Mariam and Laila eventually become confidants and best friends. They plan to run away from Rasheed and leave Kabul but are caught at the bus station. Rasheed beats them and deprives them of water for several days, almost killing Aziza.
A few years later, Laila gives birth to Zalmai, Rasheed's son. The Taliban has risen to power and imposed harsh rules on the Afghan population, prohibiting women from appearing in public without a male relative. There is a drought, and living conditions in Kabul become poor. Rasheed's workshop burns down, and he is forced to take jobs for which he is ill-suited. He sends Aziza to an orphanage. Laila endures a number of beatings from the Taliban when caught alone on the streets in attempts to visit her daughter.
Then one day Tariq appears outside the house, and he and Laila are reunited. Laila realizes that Rasheed had hired Abdul Sharif to inform her about Tariq's fake death, so that he could marry her. When Rasheed returns home from work, Zalmai tells his father about the visitor. Rasheed starts to savagely beat Laila. He nearly strangles her, but Mariam intervenes and kills Rasheed with a shovel. Afterwards, Mariam confesses to killing Rasheed in order to draw attention away from Laila and Tariq. Mariam is publicly executed, allowing Laila and Tariq to leave for Pakistan with Aziza and Zalmai. They spend their days working at a guest house in Murree, a summer retreat.
After the fall of the Taliban, Laila and Tariq return to Afghanistan. They stop in the village where Mariam was raised, and discover a package that Mariam's father left behind for her: a videotape of Pinocchio, a small sack of money, and a letter. Laila reads the letter and discovers that Jalil had regretted sending Mariam away. Laila and Tariq return to Kabul and use the money to fix up the orphanage, where Laila starts working as a teacher. Laila is pregnant with her third child, and if it is a girl, Laila has already named her Mariam.Mariam is an ethnic Pashtun born in Herat, 1959 to a Pashtun father. She is the child of Jalil and Nana born out of the wedlock. She suffers shame throughout her childhood because of the circumstances of her birth. Khaled Hosseini described her portrayal: "The key word with Mariam is that she is isolated in every sense of the word. She is a woman who is detached from the day-to-day norms of human existence. Really, she just wants connection with another human being." Despite initially resenting Laila, she becomes a "friend and a doting alternative mother" to her through the "common hardship" of being married to the "abusive, psychologically imposing" Rasheed.
Laila is an ethnic Tajik. Born in 1978, to Hakim and Fariba, she is a beautiful and intelligent girl coming from a family in which the father is university-educated and a teacher. Hosseini states that compared to Mariam, Laila "had a much more fulfilling relationship with her father, her girlfriends and her childhood friend, Tariq. She expected to finish school and is looking for personal fulfillment. These are two very different representations of women." Her life becomes tied to Mariam's when she becomes the second wife of Rasheed, Mariam's husband. This originally draws resentment from Mariam, who "[feels] her territory infringed upon". Despite this, "Laila becomes her daughter for all practical purposes" due to Mariam's childlessness, struggles,and abuse they both face during the marriage. Towards the end of the novel she becomes a schoolteacher at the orphanage where Aziza had stayed.
Rasheed is an ethnic Pashtun, a shoemaker, and the antagonist of the novel. He marries Mariam through an arrangement with Jalil, and later marries Laila as well. After suffering years of domestic abuse at his hands, Mariam bludgeons Rasheed to death with a shovel during a violent struggle. Hosseini stated that he hoped to create a multi-layered character in Rasheed, saying, "Rasheed's the embodiment of the patriarchal, tribal character. In writing him, I didn't want to write him as an irredeemable villain. He is a reprehensible person, but there are moments of humanity, such as his love for his son." He identified an encounter with an Afghan man four years earlier as the foundation for this character; the man "had a very sweet, subservient wife" and had not yet informed her that he was planning to marry again.
Tariq, an ethnic Pashtun born in 1976, is a boy who grew up in Kabul with Laila. He lost a leg to a land mine at the age of five. They eventually evolve from best friends to lovers; after a decade of separation they are married and expecting a child by the end of the novel.
Nana is Mariam's mother and a former servant of Jalil. Mariam's birth is the result of an affair between Nana and Jalil. Jalil's favoritism towards his wives and legitimate children leaves Nana bitter towards Jalil. She hangs herself when Mariam is fifteen after Mariam journeys to Jalil's house on her birthday. Nana perceives this to be betrayal and regards as an act of desertion.
Mullah Faizullah, a Sufi, is Mariam's elderly Koran teacher and friend. He dies of natural causes in 1989.
Jalil is Mariam's father, a wealthy man who had three wives before he fathered Mariam. He marries Mariam to Rasheed after Nana's death, but later regrets sending her away. He dies in 1987.
Hakim is Laila's father. He is a well-educated and a progressive schoolteacher. He is killed in a rocket explosion along with Fariba.
Fariba is Laila's mother. In Part One, during her brief meeting with Mariam, she is depicted as cheerful, but her happy nature is disrupted when her two sons, Ahmad and Noor, leave home to go to war and are later killed. She spends nearly all of her time in bed mourning her sons until the Mujahideen are victorious, and is later killed in a rocket explosion along with Hakim.
Aziza, born in the spring of 1993, is the daughter of Laila and Tariq, conceived when Laila was fourteen. When the news of Tariq's alleged death arrives, in order to hide the child's illegitimacy and provide for herself, Laila decides to marry Rasheed. Aziza's birth marks the beginning of Laila's fall from favor with Rasheed and the friendship between Mariam and Laila.
Zalmai, born in September 1997, to Laila and Rasheed. He serves as a redeeming facet of Rasheed, idolizing him despite the abuse to his mother and Mariam. Zalmai remains unaware of the fact that Mariam killed Rasheed and continuously asks Laila about him, who lies by saying that he simply left for some time. After initially blaming Tariq for his father's mysterious disappearance, he comes to accept Tariq as a father-figure.
When asked about common themes in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini replied:
"Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a prominent theme. I did not intend this, but I am keenly interested, it appears, in the way parents and children love, disappoint, and in the end honor each other. In one way, the two novels are corollaries: The Kite Runner was a father-son story, and A Thousand Splendid Suns can be seen as a mother-daughter story."
He ultimately considers both novels to be "love stories" in that it is love that "draws characters out of their isolation, that gives them the strength to transcend their own limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating acts of self-sacrifice".
Hosseini visited Afghanistan in 2003, and "heard so many stories about what happened to women, the tragedies that they had endured, the difficulties, the gender-based violence that they had suffered, the discrimination, the being barred from active life during the Taliban, having their movement restricted, being banned essentially from practicing their legal, social rights, political rights". This motivated him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women.
Washington Post writer Jonathan Yardley suggests that "the central theme of A Thousand Splendid Suns is the place of women in Afghan society", pointing to a passage in which Mariam's mother states, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam."
In the book, both Mariam and Laila are forced into accepting a marriage to Rasheed, who requires them to wear a burqa before it is implemented by law under the Taliban. He later becomes increasingly abusive. A Riverhead Trades Weekly review states that the novel consistently shows the "patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status."
In the first week following its release, A Thousand Splendid Suns sold over one million copies, becoming a number-one New York Times bestseller for fifteen weeks. Time magazine's Lev Grossman placed it at number three in the Top 10 Fiction Books of 2007, and praised it as a "dense, rich, pressure-packed guide to enduring the unendurable." Jonathan Yardley said in the Washington Post "Book World", "Just in case you're wondering whether Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns is as good as The Kite Runner, here's the answer: No. It's better."
A Thousand Splendid Suns received significant praise from reviewers, with Publishers Weekly calling it "a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan" and USA Today describing the prose as "achingly beautiful". Lisa See of The New York Times attributed the book's success to Hosseini "[understanding] the power of emotion as few other popular writers do". Natasha Walter from The Guardian wrote, "Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily."
Cathleen Medwick gave the novel a highly positive review in O, the Oprah Magazine:
"Love may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider the war-ravaged landscape of Afghanistan. But that is the emotion—subterranean, powerful, beautiful, illicit, and infinitely patient—that suffuses the pages of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. As in his best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner, Hosseini movingly examines the connections between unlikely friends, the fissures that open up between parents and children, the intransigence of quiet hearts."
The New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani wrote a more critical review, describing the opening as "heavy-handed" and early events in the novel as "soap-opera-ish". Despite these objections, she concluded, "Gradually, however, Mr. Hosseini's instinctive storytelling skills take over, mowing down the reader's objections through sheer momentum and will. He succeeds in making the emotional reality of Mariam and Laila's lives tangible to us, and by conjuring their day-to-day routines, he is able to give us a sense of what daily life was like in Kabul — both before and during the harsh reign of the Taliban." Similarly, Yvonne Zipp of The Christian Science Monitor concluded that A Thousand Splendid Suns was ultimately "a little shaky as a work of literature".
The depictions of the lead female characters, Mariam and Laila, were praised by several commentators. John Freeman from The Houston Chronicle found them "enormously winning" while Carol Memmott from USA Today further described them as "stunningly heroic characters whose spirits somehow grasp the dimmest rays of hope". Medwick summed up the portrayals: "Mariam, branded as a harami, or bastard, and forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fifteen, and Laila, a beauty groomed for success but shrouded almost beyond recognition by repressive sharia law and the husband she and Mariam share. The story, epic in scope and spanning three decades, follows these two indomitable women whose fortunes mirror those of their beloved and battered country—'nothing pretty to look at, but still standing'—and who find in each other the strength they need to survive."
Jennifer Reese from Entertainment Weekly dubbed Rasheed "one of the most repulsive males in recent literature". Lisa See said that, with the exception of Tariq, "the male characters seem either unrelentingly evil or pathetically weak" and opinionated, "If a woman wrote these things about her male characters, she would probably be labeled a man-hater."
Columbia Pictures owns the movie rights to the novel. Steven Zaillian finished writing the first draft of the screenplay in 2009 and is also slated to direct; Scott Rudin has signed on as a producer. In May 2013, studios confirmed a tentative release date of 2015.
The first theatrical adaptation of the novel premieres in San Francisco, California, on February 1, 2017. It is co-produced by the American Conservatory Theater and Theatre Calgary.