The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, has generated a near frenzy of international acclaim. It spawned a critically acclaimed movie and continues to dominate best-seller lists, five years after its release. So initially, it was with great hesitation and a near sense of trepidation that I approached his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. The Kite Runner dazzled with its lyrical, haunting prose that captured the evolution of friendship between two boys in the changing face of Afghanistan. Could its successor, with women, as central characters no less, even come close to capturing its brilliance? Happily, I say a resounding “yes.”

The novel is at once a deeply moving historical portrait of a nation torn asunder by the brutal regime of the Taliban and the journey of two women, Mariam and Laila, bonded by violence but physically and emotionally salvaged by the gift of friendship. The novel alternates between the voices of Mariam and Laila, and in the first half of the novel, we are introduced to Mariam.

As a child, Mariam must bear the shame of being a harami or bastard. Mariam, along with her embittered mother, a former servant in her wealthy father’s household, are literally relegated to the fringes of society, living in a dirt floor hut and forced to eke out an existence. Her father, though sympathetic and doting, refuses to claim Mariam as his own in the eyes of society.

Thus, Mariam becomes accustomed to a life of want and disappointment. In a society where women are mere pawns and property, she is hardly alone. Sadly but dutifully, Mariam resigns herself to an arranged marriage, orchestrated by her father in his final act of betrayal. Through the shadowy prison of the burqa she is now forced to wear, the years pass by as Mariam’s beauty, spirit, and hope wilt under the tyranny of her abusive husband, Rasheed.

Enter young, fiery and passionate Laila. Through a series of devastating soul crushing circumstances, Laila inherits the bitter legacy of the people of Afghanistan — a life characterized by loss. Utterly alone in the world and in a fit of true desperation, she weds Rasheed. Quickly, beautiful Laila become the prized wife of Rasheed, casting Mariam deeper into the shadows and sparking resentment between the two women.

But Laila won’t as readily submit to the power of man. Raised by liberal-minded parents, her voice will not be silenced, as she begins to assert herself to Rasheed, even on behalf of Mariam. United by a common enemy and an explosive secret, the women begin to envision a life beyond survival and a chance for redemption.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, a term applied to the beauty of the former world of Afghanistan, is a true tribute to Hosseini’s former homeland and its present inhabitants. Without caricature or condescension, Hosseini captures the plight of the women in Afghanistan, and presents characters that even we, fortunate enough to be cloistered in the western world, can identify and empathize with in their struggles. While admittedly dealing with weighty subjects, it is an “easy” read guaranteed to leave one feeling uneasy about the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. Although reading may seem a futile exercise in the face of unbelievable pain and suffering, A Thousand Splendid Suns may just be the crucial first step.