One of the protagonists of the novel and Rasheed’s first wife. Mariam is first introduced as a young girl living with her mother, Nana, and the novel follows her character into adulthood. Mariam was born out of wedlock, an identity that she carries with her, and her life is dictated by the wills of other people. Mariam was forced into adulthood quickly and develops a tough exterior to endure the harsh situations of her life, but she is still able to find and experience love as the novel progresses.
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One of the protagonists of the novel and Rasheed’s second wife. Laila is beautiful, intelligent, and loved by her family. She is able to find a solid identity through school and friendships. When her parents are killed, Laila proves that she is also resilient and determined. The rules imposed by the Taliban and the violence in Kabul force her to make heavy sacrifices to keep her family alive, but she is later reunited with her first love, Tariq.
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Mariam and Laila’s husband and Zalmai’s father. Rasheed is much older than both of his wives. Quick to anger, violent, and hungry for power, Rasheed serves as the novel’s main antagonist. He dislikes the communist party and supports the Taliban, sometimes even extolling the violence occurring in Kabul.
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Laila’s childhood best friend, first love, and later her husband. He is also Aziza’s father. Tariq serves as Rasheed’s foil and is kind, patient, and loyal. He walks with a prosthetic leg due to an encounter with a land mine as a young child. Tariq is exceptionally hardworking and does not allow his hardship to hinder him in any way. He has been in love with Laila since they were young and continuously proves his dedication to her.
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Mariam’s mother and Jalil’s ex-lover. She became pregnant with Mariam out of wedlock and constantly berates her daughter for being a bastard child. She is harshly practical and teaches Mariam only the things she believes are useful to a woman, such as cooking and cleaning. It is implied that she suffers from severe convulsions or seizures. Nana eventually takes her own life.
Mariam’s rich father. He owns the cinema in Herat. Jalil, who has other wives and children, got Nana pregnant with Mariam and built them a house on the edge of the city. He is a kind, stately man who shows Mariam a lot of affection as a child. However, he values his reputation over accepting her as a legitimate child.
Laila’s mother. Mammy’s character is both compared with and contrasted to Mariam’s mother, Nana. Mammy is kind yet strict with Laila, entrusting her with responsibilities early on. It is implied that Mammy suffers from depression. She falls deeper into this sadness and becomes a shell of a person when her sons die. Babi says she was once beautiful and vibrant. She is killed in a rocket explosion while trying to flee Kabul.
Laila’s father. He is a progressive teacher who begins homeschooling Laila when it becomes too dangerous for her to go to school. Babi has good intentions and wants the best for his family but is powerless against both the political unrest and his wife’s depression. He is able to see the beauty in Afghanistan despite the violence. He is killed in a rocket explosion while trying to flee Kabul.
An elderly Koran tutor. He is a kind man who teaches Mariam how to recite prayers and scripture. He values education and supports Mariam’s decision to go to school. He is heartbroken when Mariam is forced to move away and marry Rasheed.
Laila’s daughter with Tariq. Aziza shares many of her father’s physical and personality traits. She is described as being as beautiful as her mother and is incredibly loving.
Laila’s son with Rasheed. Zalmai is treated the best in his family’s household, thus growing very attached to Rasheed. He is a very active child. He doesn’t understand where his father has gone and does not readily accept Tariq as his stepfather.
Laila’s childhood friend. As a child, Hasina is mischievous and talkative. She jokes that Laila has a crush on Tariq. When she becomes an adult, she gets married and moves to Germany.
Laila’s childhood friend. She is at first described as a humorless girl but grows up to dream of marriage. She serves as a reminder to Laila that her studies should be more important than finding a husband. She is killed during the bombings over Kabul.
A bully. He finds it fun to harass young Laila, saying he will marry her for her beauty. After he shoots Laila with a water gun filled with urine, Tariq gets revenge by fighting him.
Ahmad & Noor
Laila’s older brothers who die in the war. Ahmad and Noor have high status in Laila’s family because they are the first sons. Mammy cares for them deeply and is devastated when they die. They serve as martyrs in the Afghan conflict against oppressive rulership.
The man who tells Laila that Tariq has died. He weaves together a long, convincing story about Tariq’s death, and it is discovered later that Rasheed bribed him to lie.
Mullah Faizullah’s son. He generously gives Laila the box Jalil left for Mariam.
Ahmad Shah Massoud
An instrumental figure in the mujahideen resistance of the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. He also strongly opposed the Taliban regime, which led to his assassination in 2001.