April 30, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns ***

*** A Thousand Splendid Suns, Kaled Hosseini, 2007

The Woman dragged this home last year and I finally got around to reading it. I read and enjoyed The Kite Runner, and saw the movie, which was well done and, amazingly, less graphic than the book. I started in on A Thousand Splendid Suns and for the first few chapters got to thinking that it didn't quite measure up to his first attempt.

After some reflection, I decided that it was the beginning that was the problem. Here's how The Kite Runner started out:

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near a frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

Wow. But there's more.

One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins. After I hung up, I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park. The early-afternoon sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp breeze. Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills, floating side by side like a pair of eyes looking down on San Francisco, the city I now call home. And suddenly Hassan's voice whispered in my head: For you, a thousand times over. Hassan the harelilpped kite runner.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Dang. In 5 sentences, 88 words, he's hooked us. What did he see in the alley?

With the next 232 words he sets another hook. What does Khan mean, There is a way to be good again? And buries the first hook deeper.

Just one of those is enough to keep you going through a slow spot or two. Both of them are like a one-two punch. No way you're going to set this book down before you know the answers to those two questions.

By comparison, A Thousand Splendid Suns doesn't set a hook. He just starts telling a story. It's a good story, but the attention can wane even in a good story, especially if you're on an elliptical trainer.

Eventually the story gains enough complexity, nuance and momentum that you're not likely to abandon it. But I loved The Kite Runner because from the first paragraph it was never in question. I was going to finish that book.

My take is that Hosseini's second book is as good as his first, but the opening of the first was better. This is still a great read and I recommend it.

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