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A Thousand Splendid Suns is told through two different perspectives. Part One is entirely told through Mariam’s point of view, and Part Two is told through Laila’s. The characters converge in Part Three and alternate until the book’s climax, or the height of the tension. The novel spans several years and shows the character arcs of the two protagonists as they age from girls to women. This structure allows Hosseini to explore the effects of Afghanistan’s history across decades while crafting complex relationships between the characters.
The story of Mariam’s childhood opens the novel. She is a harami, a bastard, born to a rich father, Jalil, and a poor mother, Nana. Her difficult life on the outskirts of Herat makes her long for the imagined comfort of her father’s home. He is kind and loving to her, but he makes no attempt to integrate her into his legitimate family. Nana cannot stand Jalil for making her bear the shame of an illegitimate child. The inciting incident that propels the plot into motion is when Mariam rejects Nana’s wishes and chases after her father, who ignores her. As a result, Nana hangs herself, leaving Mariam up to the will of Jalil. Jalil then arranges for Mariam to marry Rasheed, the antagonist who will provide much of the conflict of the novel. Not long after they marry, Rasheed forces Mariam to chew pebbles as a punishment for undercooking rice. This abuse is the point where Mariam comes to believe that she is not deserving of being loved.
In Part Two, the structure of Laila’s introduction is both mirrored and juxtaposed to that of Mariam’s. Laila goes to school and lives in Kabul with Babi and Mammy. She is expected by her parents and her friends to do something grand with her life, as opposed to simply getting married and having children. In the beginning, she has a childish crush on her friend Tariq. Laila’s life is much different from Mariam’s, but certain aspects are the same. For example, the inciting incident in Laila’s story also involves a death in her family. Due to the rising violence in Afghanistan, both of her brothers have been killed. This tragedy introduces the other major conflict in the novel: the political unrest and violence in Afghanistan.
The violence continues to escalate as Laila’s life becomes more complicated. A visit to the Bamiyan Buddhas reveals Laila’s desire to live a happy life in her homeland. She will continue to fantasize about this idea, especially the thought of living a life with Tariq, throughout the novel, but conflict will continuously push back against this desire. The life Laila wants is already being pulled away from her by her removal from school and with the news that Tariq is leaving Kabul due to the mounting violence. Tariq and Laila have sex before he leaves, a choice that creates lasting consequences. At Part Two’s conclusion, when Laila’s parents are killed in a rocket explosion and she is gravely wounded, the violence in Kabul seems insurmountable.
Mariam and Laila’s stories converge in Part Three. It is Rasheed who pulls Laila from the rocket blast’s rubble and nurses her back to health. The rising action, or the events leading to the climax, are punctuated with growing unrest both within and outside the walls of Rasheed’s house. When Laila gives birth to Aziza, who is actually Tariq’s daughter, Rasheed acts much more cruelly to Laila for giving him a daughter rather than a son. Mariam and Laila heal their broken relationship by uniting to push back against Rasheed in an attempt at finding agency for themselves. Their most outward show of defiance comes when they try to escape with Aziza to Pakistan. However, when they are caught and sent back, Rasheed responds by locking them away and refusing them basic necessities like water. The arrival of the Taliban, who introduce strict laws, make the protagonists’ situation even more dire.
The climax of the novel occurs after the revelation that Tariq is alive and he visits Laila without Rasheed’s knowledge. Rasheed attempted to squash the possibility of Laila missing her ex-lover by arranging for someone to tell her he was dead; he is furious when his plan is overturned. Rasheed viciously beats both Laila and Mariam. When he attempts to take Laila’s life by strangling her, Mariam knows that to protect the family she has grown to love, she must kill her husband. For the first time in the story, Mariam takes agency over her own life and kills Rasheed. This almost maternal sacrifice allows Laila to escape with Tariq. The consequence, however, is that Mariam will surely be executed. Part Three ends with Mariam sacrificing her life. Through Laila and Aziza, Mariam finally found the love she was denied as a child, and taking the blame for their crime is a way to allow Laila’s story to continue.
Up until the novel’s climax, the story has been told in past tense. In Part Four the novel shifts to the present tense. The falling action shows that Laila has achieved her dream of living with Tariq, but this life has cost her gravely. The lessening violence in Afghanistan at the turn of the century offers her a rare chance to realize the other part of her dream, which is to live in her homeland. When they move back to Kabul, it offers Laila the opportunity to not only reconcile her past with her present, but to build the life she was unable to earlier because of the political unrest. The novel concludes with Laila becoming a teacher and making efforts to improve Kabul. She recognizes the sacrifice Mariam made and honors her memory by stating that she will name her unborn child after her if she is a girl. Despite the violence that defines many events in the plot, Hosseini ends A Thousand Splendid Suns with the idea that it is possible to rebuild after overcoming a challenging past.