27 February, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Disputed Land, Family & Afghanistan

The title makes this sound like some kind of political, historical and social piece on Afghanistan. It's not.

'A Thousand Splendid Suns' is a historical fiction of Afghanistan, and of feminity. I had it pegged in my head as a really intelligent, thought-provoking read like the reviews said, but I was let down. I should have known that 'the Richard & Judy Number One Bestseller' would disappoint.

It's not, by any means, a bad book - it's just too light for the subject matter and the prose is a protracted, long drudge through quite a short, eventless history. The characters are likeable, but not intensely so - I didn't particularly care either way. The amount of bad things that happen is a tumultuous pile of wrongdoing and injustice - but overwhelmingly so. The relationship between Mariam and Laila goes from hatred to best-friendship over one unconvincing page, and their relationship together - the main point to the book's quasi-feminist agenda, is weak and ungrounded.

The writing is not chick-lit as such, but there is very little of aesthetic beauty in the text - the narrative is of the 'let's get this information out there' variety. The one thing that gives respite to otherwise bland uses of language is the inclusion of Afghanistan words and phrases, including their English translations, which ground the story historically and socially. However, in terms of other details about the historical basis of womens' lives in this time period, there is a sense that Hosseini knows a lot more than she is writing down and sharing.

Don't rush to read 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' - it's an easy read, fairly quick and enjoyable, and there are rare moments of thought-provoking gender battles, but these are short-lived, in a series of predictable plot surprises, mediocre dialogues and conceited character motivations.  It wasn't the worst book I've read, but let's put it this way - there's literally no way I'm reading 'The Kite Runner' after this.

I picked up 'Disputed Land' by Tim Pears on discount at work, and I'm glad I did - the novel was interesting, possessing moments of unique poetic voice and the book itself is very 'handsome' - but I'm glad I bought it on discount - the book fails to maintain its highs, and swings wildly between the universal trials of mortality and possession as a topic, and mundane and sleazy monetary deals.

As with 'A Thousand Splendid Suns', the majority of prose is fairly generic, but Pears elevates the mundane with poetic beauty he reserves for best. For example, in discussing life and death, the owners of property and land, and the world's impending energy crisis, Pears writes metaphorically and poetically, which contrasts with the banal tone he uses for family domestics. But then he often throws a spanner into the works - he writes beautifully of the family Christmas, and then has some hunting and machinery-clearing scenes in the picturesque outdoors featuring some crude dialogue and fight scenes. In all, he challenges the separation of family life from any other outside influences, and makes the point that we are all part of the world within which we live.

This dichotomy - city/country, genuine/pretend, life/death - pervades the entire novel. Not least because Theo, our narrator, is looking back as an adult, but the majority of perception is narrated, and divulged, from the viewpoint of a child. From a beginning in which he notices very little, the book also seems to become a coming-of-age tale - Theo gets his first kiss, and starts to note the nuances in his parents' and family's behaviour. The way in which a child sees everything as before him, and is shown mostly the good, is torn apart by Pears. There is a strange mix of the good and the bad in everything this Christmas - inheritance vs Grandma's impending death, the beauty of the countryside vs its impending doom from pollution and Theo's first kiss happening simultaneously with his Grandma collapsing - which I think symbolises that way this is in life, and how Theo must grow to accept that.

Now, the book is not phenomenal - it's quite mediocre, but has some moments of genius. Its poetic beauty is sparse, but well-placed and manoeuvred, and the book is short - so for a few hours, it will entertain you. It's funny, true and all-encompassing - but wait for the paperback. It's not that good.

Between the two, we see two different family lives, but concerns of reputation, social hierarchy and legacy are undeniably relevant in both. The idea of possession, inheritance, and what possession will do for us in the future is another topic which is bound tightly to what we pass on in terms of children and progeny. Just what part of us is it that we leave behind, with or without children?

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