Hosseini’s second novel mirrors three decades of war-torn Afghanistan as lived by two women, both caught in the evolving politics of their country. Relegated to the virtual anonymity of females in a patriarchal system, women are subjected to the whims of their husbands and fathers, be they brutal or kind.
By the time she is a teenager, Mariam understands little of the world around her, isolated far from her father’s legitimate children and three wives. Her child born out of wedlock, Mariam’s mother is allowed a sparse existence in a rural area. Idolizing her wealthy businessman father, the girl arrives at his house on her fifteenth birthday only to be shunned. Returning home in shame, she’s greeted by yet another blow, suddenly thrust into circumstances that will determine the direction of her life.
Married almost overnight to a shoemaker in Kabul, Mariam is suddenly swept into a new role as the wife of a widower, the overbearing, cruel Rasheed. Many years her senior, Rasheed views Mariam as a chattel, but puts up with her childishness until she proves unable to bear him a healthy heir.
The much younger Laila is a happy, curious child whose successful education is encouraged by her parents. Enjoying the freedoms allowed by the Communist rule, Laila has no idea of the turmoil her country faces until many of her neighbors begin to flee the constant war begun by the Soviets, culminating with the Taliban’s oppressive rule.
Soon after her childhood sweetheart, Tariq, leaves with his family, Laila finds herself at the mercy of Rasheed; the neighbor cares for her after a random bombing. As an unmarried woman, once she has stayed under his roof, Laila is forced to marry her so-called benefactor to avoid scandal, her freedom exchanged for a virtual prison.
Rasheed ignores Mariam in favor of Laila, the older wife naturally resentful. But as each regime change reinforces Rasheed’s contemptible treatment of his wives, Laila comes to Mariam’s aid during a beating by an enraged husband. The two women bond as victims of abuse. Thereafter, Mariam assumes a role that has been denied to her, caring for the needs of Laila’s little daughter; after Laila’s son is born, Mariam is as happy as possible for a woman in her situation.
Once under Rasheed’s roof, both Mariam and Laila’s identities are erased as surely as if they are buried alive in the marriage. Mired in a thankless existence, Rasheed buoyed by an increasingly restrictive Taliban government, the time passes in excruciating increments for the suffering women. The power of the novel comes from their inescapable predicament and their great courage under impossible conditions, nurturing the children in spite of Rasheed’s increasing brutality: “How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.” There is no way to avoid the truth of the suffering of those trapped in the jaws of a government that fails to protect its citizens, an eloquent reminder of the value of freedom and the weight of oppression.