BY ROB CLINE
“When I first picked up the manuscript for The Kite Runner, I knew I had something remarkable in my hands.” So wrote Celina Spiegel, vice-president and publisher of Riverhead Books, in a letter on the back cover of the first edition of Khaled Hosseini’s first novel. That letter, I must admit, made me skeptical about the book’s quality. In my experience, such a tactic by the publisher seldom bodes well for the reader.
Little did I know that my own words of praise would be part of the paperback edition.
In a sense, Spiegel’s letter proved emblematic of the word-of-mouth buzz that led to the book becoming a fixture on bestseller lists. That buzz also led to the book’s selection as the title for the 2004 edition of the Johnson County “One Community, One Book” project. I sit on the selection committee and was more than pleased to throw my vote behind the book.
The Kite Runner was, after all, a novel that met both the primary and secondary requirements of the project: the book must have a human rights focus and it must be a “good” book. In the case of fiction, the latter means it must have some aesthetic value in addition to any “message” it might contain.
By the time we were discussing the novel for the project, my enthusiasm for the book—as both a good read and a good exploration of human rights issues—was on record in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
A snippet of that review made its way (among four pages of other reviews) into the softcover edition of The Kite Runner, tucked between blurbs from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Wall Street Journal: “A gripping and moving book that offers a surprising reward: an understanding of, and empathy for, the people of Afghanistan. . . . The book’s power resides in Hosseini’s ability to bring that culture to life on the page . . . almost impossible to put down.”
Not, it turns out, a far cry from Spiegel’s: “I knew I had something remarkable in my hands.”
But even after the meteoric success of The Kite Runner and my own appreciation for the book, I found myself skeptical again when I heard that Hosseini had a new novel coming out. I wondered if the physician-turned-novelist—an engaging, humble man who seems to have no pretensions when it comes to his writing—could live up to lofty expectations in his second endeavor.
Once again, my skepticism has proved to be unfounded. Hosseini has deftly avoided a sophomore slump. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a great read.
The Kite Runner painted a much richer picture of Afghanistan than most Americans had imagined from decades of violent news from the country. Hosseini continues that investigation of the land of his birth in the new novel, this time focusing on the plight of women in a nation where religious rules and tradition place all power and authority in the hands of men.
Through the stories of Laila and Mariam—two women whose lives become entwined when tragedy brings them together—Hosseini surveys years of turmoil in Afghanistan. While he is skilled at revealing cultural and historical details without heavy-handedness, Hosseini’s particular talent is the description of personal brutalization. Evil is often an embodied physical presence in Hosseini’s novels. As a result, moments of kindness and redemption are also heightened, rendering his novels emotionally powerful.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns (as in The Kite Runner), the scaffolding of Hosseini’s plot is often overly apparent as he maneuvers his characters into the positions his story requires, but he successfully creates a number of indelible images as his plot rushes forward. Hosseini is a wonderful storyteller and his second novel, like his first, has an important story to tell.
On a vaguely related topic, I read once that you can always pick out the book reviewers in a bookstore by looking for individuals huddled around the new paperback table examining back covers and the first few pages of the books. Those folks are looking for their own blurbs.
I have furtively engaged in this very activity. It has seldom yielded results.
Indeed, should you desire to own “The Complete Blurbs of Rob Cline,” you will need only two books: paperback editions of The Kite Runner and Paula Sharp’s I Loved You All.