Mariam, a girl born out of wedlock and living in a shed outside of Herat, has only one dream: to go live with her father Jalil whom she adores beyond measure. After her mother's suicide, indeed she joins his household only to realize that he sees her as embarrassment - she's married off to a man, Rhasheed, living in far-away Kabul, who's 30 years her senior. After multiple miscarriages, the already loveless and cold marriage turns ever more violent.
Years later, the girl Laila grows up in the immediate vicinity with a loving and educated father and an estranged mother, who resents having had to send off her two sons to fight against the Soviets. Laila's best friend is Tariq who lost his leg as a child due to a landmine. Inevitably, they fall deeply for each other, and consummate their relationship on the eve of Tariq's departure for Pakistan. Weeks later, after having finally convinced her mother, Laila's family is packing up as well, just as a rocket detonates in her home, killing her parents and leaving her injured. When she wakes up she finds herself in Rhasheed's household who's doing everything to convince her that marrying him is her only chance of being safe.
What follows is a powerful tale about family, love, endurance, dominance, deception, violence, acceptance - underlined by the ever changing political climate in Afghanistan. Much of it is difficult to read, especially for a woman - the casual violence against and humiliation of women (being beaten for so-called infractions like walking down the street unaccompanied by a man, being denied proper medical care and having to endure surgeries without anaesthetics), the being locked away (figuratively in the burqa and literally), the impression that women only serve to fulfill the men's needs (just the expression of "he mounts her" reminds me of animals, of not having any choice), being essentially at the complete and utter mercy of your husband (and other men). How does a society work that runs on subjugating one half of the population?
But the far stronger facet of the novel, aside from the changing outside factors, is the love that runs through it despite every obstacle, the small spark of hope in an endless sea of darkness: be it the love between a man and a woman, the love between parents and child, the love between siblings, the love born of shared pain.
Mariam is so beaten down by years of abuse, coming after the humiliation of being a 2nd-class child, that she only starts to fight back when, for the first time, someone, Laila, is rushing to her defense. She finds love and acceptance there, the will to protect them at any cost, and she makes peace with the consequences. The tragic part is that if she had opened her heart a bit earlier, she might have known within her lifetime that she was cherished even before. But sometimes actions speak louder than words or mimics. And so, Jalil's last letter comes too late:
"May God grant you a long and prosperous life, my daughter. May God give you many healthy and beautiful children. May you find the happiness, peace, and acceptance that I did not give you."
If only he knew what his actions actually condemned her to.
Laila keeps asking herself how much one can endure before being broken - with the right incentive apparently almost everything. Because of Mariam's sacrifice she's able to start a new life, even if all of them bear scars from their experiences on their bodies and their souls - and there's no easy happy ending to have. But she knows, some things go beyond death, like her connection to Mariam.
I have to admit that I spent most of the final quarter of the book in tears, starting with the surprising visitor at the doorstep, which revealed the house of lies Laila's life was built on, up until their return to Kabul, starting to rebuild their home and lives after the Taliban were driven out.
Make no mistake, this novel doesn't pull any punches, it's going to put you through the wringer - and it will stay with you. What an experience.