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But Hosseini vividly brings home what life is like for women in a society in which they are valued only for reproduction. Once she has suffered a series of miscarriages, Mariam's marriage becomes a prison: "Mariam was afraid. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not.
This means that we suddenly see Mariam from the outside: Laila never speaks to her, but one day she "passed Rasheed, the shoemaker, with his burka-clad wife, Mariam, in tow".
In a flash we see, as Hosseini clearly intends us to, how behind every silent burka in Afghanistan is an individual with a hidden history. As well as an education, ambitions and opinions, Laila even has a respectful and intelligent boyfriend, who goes with her to the cinema and on a trip to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
By putting Mariam and Laila in contrast like this, Hosseini is, you feel, not just trying to burrow into individual lives, but also trying to explain the complexities of Afghan society to the reader. That sense that you are listening to a history lesson as much as experiencing a fiction becomes stronger as the narrative moves on.
Hosseini is almost too careful to describe for ignorant westerners the political background to these women's lives, from the Soviet occupation that ruled Laila's childhood to the growing strength of the mujahideen that her brothers join, amid "rising rumours that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war".
Once the Soviets are ousted, he takes an even more didactic turn, spelling out how the mujahideen turned from idealised freedom fighters to oppressors. The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.
His energetic narrative speeds on through the political and domestic worlds, as we move through the tragedies that fall on Laila's family.
Eventually we see her, orphaned and alone, allowing herself to become Rasheed's second wife. You might think this novel is becoming too melodramatic, as one horror succeeds another, with rockets blowing families apart and attempted escapes and even murder, alongside the beatings and whippings and threats that make up the women's daily experiences.
But when I started to think this I remembered women I met in Kabul, and how many of them had stories to tell almost as melodramatic as this.
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