In our first post concerning A Thousand Splendid Suns, we discussed the story in A Thousand Splendid Suns. This time we want to consider some of the stylistic techniques that contribute to the popularity of Hosseini’s works.
Hosseini’s books are not adventure novels, but the action rarely flags. We are introduced to the main character (Mariam) and one of the central conflicts (her perceived rejection by the world) in the opening pages, and Hosseini rarely stops for sensory details or historical background. But that is not to say that Hosseini skimps on descriptions. He identifies salient points with such skill that he conjures up images and evokes character traits in a few powerful words, without slacking the pace of the plot. And rather than moving back and forth between narrative and description, he interweaves the two, so that the action only breaks off when Hosseini shifts the scene to heighten suspense. (Daniel Mason uses a similar technique in The Piano Tuner, when he relays historical background to the reader in the form of letters and articles read by the main character, so that reader and protagonist learn together.) (Warning: Plot revelations ahead)
Hosseini also builds suspense through foreshadowing. In fact, he often goes beyond foreshadowing to giving away future plot developments—a technique that heightens tension, rather than relaxing it. The Kite Runner opens with the information that some event in an alley is going to form the future of the main character, though it is many chapters before we discover the nature of the ill-fated occurrence. And when Mariam and Laila part at the climax of Suns, we learn that “Laila never saw Mariam again” (p. 320).
I wondered right up to the end whether Mariam’s sentence would actually be carried out or whether some last-minute stay would spare her; Hosseini’s foreshadowing sometimes seems intentionally misleading. After Laila receives news of Tariq’s death, we are told that with time, Laila’s memories of Tariq would fade, “Except every once in a long while, when Laila was a grown woman, ironing a shirt or pushing her children on a swing set, something, something trivial … would set off a memory of that afternoon together” (p. 168). We are led to believe that Laila and Tariq will never be reunited—until Tariq turns up again, contrary to expectation.
Other instances of foreshadowing seem to be only half fulfilled. Pebbles appear several times in the opening chapters: Mariam’s mother pelts her half brothers with them, Mariam plays with them and names them after her siblings and carries them around in her pocket. In a later, wrenching scene, Rasheed makes Laila chew a mouthful of pebbles and tells her that is what it is like to eat her rice. I thought these references must be leading up to something, and later, when Mariam was sentenced to death, I thought, “Ah, this is it—death by stoning.” Mercifully, it appears this was not the case. It did leave me wondering, though, if I had misread the clues or if perhaps the pebbles did point to death but Hosseini chose to throw in a twist—just to keep the reader guessing.
Similarly, when Laila and Mariam dig a hole in the yard to hide the TV from the Taliban, one immediately suspects that this is destined to become a grave. Laila even has a dream in which Aziza is lowered into the hole, alive (p. 268). And when the women kill Rasheed, I thought, “Now they’re going to bury him in the hole”—which would have been a very practical thing to do. But instead they put him in the tool shed, and Mariam gives herself up to die for her crime, knowing that eventually someone will find the body and the women will be accused of the murder. Personally, I would have found it more satisfying in a literary sense if they had buried Rasheed in the hole, even if Mariam had still found it necessary to give herself up. (See the first post for B’s views on the unconvincing necessity of Mariam’s death.) On the other hand, as it stands, perhaps the narrative acknowledges that Mariam would have been unable to live at peace the rest of her life, both in the knowledge of having killed someone and with the possibility that she and Laila would forever be fugitives.
Hosseini is a master story teller. Even though I did not find the plot of Suns quite as compelling as that of Kite Runner, the above-mentioned stylistic devices helped keep my attention fixed on the progress of the narrative. Based on my knowledge of the region, I can guess that for most Afghans, shared oral stories, songs, and poetry are more common experiences than individual reading of books and periodicals. Persia, which includes Afghanistan, does have a rich literary tradition, however, and many texts pass in and out of oral and written form. Layla and Majnun, for example, began as an Arabic folk story, was recorded in verse by the Persian poet Nizami in the 12th century, and is still familiar to Iranians young and old today, even though many of them have not read it. It would be interesting to hear from someone familiar with both oral and written traditions in Afghanistan as to whether Hosseini’s works represent devices typical of both traditions.