Khaled Hosseini's novels are shamefully manipulative. His protagonists in the bestseller The Kite Runner and the new A Thousand Splendid Suns are never merely sad: They're perpeturally wretched creatures, raped, beaten, betrayed, and tormented by suicides and murders poetically timed to exacerbate their guilt. They have everything they care about ripped away from them and nonetheless have to struggle to survive in a grotesquely malevolent world. And they live in cultures that make all this not merely possible, but the societal norm. To some degree, that justifies Hosseini's plotting: The horrors he describes are certainly happening in the real world, albeit usually with less cruelly apt calculation. But while his books are absorbing, it's hard to miss how hard he's working to make them emotionally exhausting.
A Thousand Splendid Suns follows two women in modern Afghanistan, introduced separately, then brought together by tragedy. The first, Mariam, is the illegitimate child of a rich man and his housemaid; exiled to a makeshift home outside the town where her father lives with his three wives, Mariam grows up adoring him, until she pushes too hard for his affection and finds the lines he isn't willing to cross. Early on, her coldly bitter mother lays out the book's theme: "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." That holds true as the focus shifts to Laila, a younger Kabul girl with a scholarly, ineffectual father, a depression-crippled mother, and a crush on a local boy who lost a leg to a land mine in childhood. Through Laila and Mariam's eyes, Hosseini tracks Afghanistan's regime changes over the last few decades: the Soviets, the Mujahideen, the Taliban, the American bombings. But the politics are vaguely described and off in the distance; Hosseini keeps the focus firmly on the growing privations and losses all these shifts bring to the average woman.
Like Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a sleek, accessible book flavored with incidental detail about life in Kabul, though the focus is more on inner landscapes than outer ones. As Laila and Mariam suffer, their travails are meant to excite pity, empathy, and desire for justice, and the characters and storyline are so well-crafted that it's easy to fall into Hosseini's web. But it's just as easy to give in to a lingering sense of being played for empty emotion. A stronger sense of place, of history, or even of a broader world outside all the agony-aunt miserabilism might have suggested that there's more to this book than just feeling really bad in order to feel good when it's all over.