Having missed the book club before this, it was lovely to bumble in this month to a great turnout and plenty of new faces.
Unfortunately I rocked up about thirty minutes late, so if you said anything super insightful or interesting before this, please stick it in the comments! (LBC – We were only about 10 minutes in & I was the only one to get into full flow – so you didn’t miss much. However, we did discuss our slight worry that we would have enjoyed it more if it had been set in a different or fictional country. As it was; one or two of us felt that the book was slightly patronising tonaly. It’s difficult to pick an exact example; more a vague sense of unease than anything definite.)The opening comments usually give a good sense of how people felt overall about the novel, before we get into the nitty gritty, and this is then summed up again at the end when we all mark the book out of ten. I have to be honest and say my feelings can change drastically between those two points! Is it just me, or can a good discussion turn everything on its head?
As I arrived we were just getting into discussion of the characters in the book. We discussed that, the two main characters aside, there seemed to be a number of stereotypes featured. Almost all of the characters slotted neatly into a clear good/bad dichotomy. The most obvious example was the traditional, conservative, cruel Rasheed, misogynist, abuser and husband to Mariam and Laila. Rasheed was universally and understandably hated by the whole group, and despite his eventual demise, I think a lot of us thought he got off quite lightly. Laila’s father, on the other hand, was ‘practically perfect in every way’ with his liberal outlook and kind manner. He seemed to mirror Rashid, and demonstrate that the two were brought up in the same culture but developed into completely opposite characters.
Some exceptions included Jalil’s three wives, who could have come across as a trio of Macbeth style witches, but instead came off as practical and reasonable. Another exception was Mariam’s mother. We felt she seemed to have a very complicated relationship with Jalil and a shaky grasp on reality, and thought it was a real shame that she wasn’t explored in more depth. There was a split of opinion as to whether ‘Nana’ killed herself out of spite, to hurt Mariam, or because she had lost her daughter and had nothing left to live for. Similarly, did she hide herself and her daughter away to draw attention to herself and make a spectacle of herself, or because she was genuinely too ashamed (or unbalanced…) to continue life as before. There was a general trend toward mild sympathy toward Miriam’s mother, as she wasn’t protected by marriage and had to depend on Jalil to take care of her, but we didn’t especially feel that she was making the best of her situation.
Mariam and Laila were both well liked by the group. Although the majority preferred Laila when pushed, no-one felt badly toward Mariam. It seemed to us like the author preferred Laila too – there was just the one happy ending here, and Mariam didn’t get it! There seemed to be more mirroring at play here as well, as Mariam and Laila had such similar personalities but such different upbringings. They were both warm, kind and compassionate, but the events of Mariam’s life had beaten her down, while those of Laila’s had built her up and strengthened her even when they weren’t positive events. Whilst Mariam was brought up by her mother and had a largely physically absent father, Laila was brought up by her father and had a largely emotionally absent mother. Laila was encouraged and loved and praised during her childhood, and Mariam was called names and insulted and rejected.
We didn’t feel that Mariam had as distinctive a voice as Laila. Whilst we thought both the women were likeable, it seemed we got into Laila’s head a little more. Laila’s story and character development seemed clear, but there were many ‘lost years’ in Mariam’s narrative as she languished in her unhappy marriage. It would have been good to get to understand better how the (tragic) formative events of Mariam’s life affected her.
As far as the writing was concerned, we felt that a first person narrative might have helped us understand Mariam better. We also thought that reading the same events from each perspective could have been even more interesting – one group member in particular mentioned that she always finds it fascinating to study the different ways in which people perceive events. The sense of place within the book was well defined. Not only did we get a good picture of Afghanistan at various points in its history, but there were obvious differences between Kabul, the city, and the solitary hut in the village where Mariam grew up.
Everyone enjoyed the central storyline and the relationship that developed between Mariam and Laila. The way the relationship formed and then intensified felt ‘real’ – Mariam took Laila in because she is warm-hearted and kind (and lonely?). When Rasheed suggests and Laila accepts marriage, Mariam becomes jealous and hostile, and it takes a baby, serious grovelling from Laila and buckets and buckets of time for them to become closer.
The fact that Mariam, after her years of disappointment, finally got the opportunity to exercise her maternal feelings was wonderful. Although we’re by no means suggesting that all women need this, it was clearly something that Mariam in particular had craved. Mariam bonded first with Laila’s daughter and then Laila herself in a way that was truly familial.
The scenes where the women of Kabul secretly watched Titanic really resonated with some of us. We remembered going through the same obsession and somehow this popular culture reference was a lifeline between the reader and the characters. For me personally, this was a rare example of a popular culture reference that did more than act as a lazy marker for time or character, but imbued life to the scene and made it more real.
We liked the way the novel was not a book about a man with two wives, but a book about two women who were married to the same man. It wasn’t really about the women’s relationship with Rasheed, but about their relationship with each other.
We liked the way family was portrayed in some ways – obviously the husband-wife relationship on show wasn’t ideal, but the way the children had a number of different parent figures to go to reflected, we thought, the situation that our society is moving toward. Many children today have a wide choice of parents, step parents, teachers, other family members and friends to approach if necessary, and this positive aspect of polygamy was one which we appreciated.
Some group members thought the narrative tied up a bit too neatly at the end, and it seemed a little too contrived and writerly. On the other hand, none of us begrudged Laila her happy ending. Although Mariam accepted her punishment in the end, none of us believed she did it for the right reasons. She seems conditioned to accept blame thanks to her years of abuse, and it was sad to see this instinct persevere to the bitter end.
I don’t think any of the group members could boast an in depth knowledge of Afghan geography or politics, and we all felt that a fuller understanding of the political groups, regions and ethnic groups mentioned would have enhanced our understanding and enjoyment of the novel. Perhaps a small introductory summary might have been possible, but anything too reductive would obviously not be helpful. On the other hand, we all said we would have liked more Afghani cultural references. We’re a hard lot to please!
It was interesting to see the balance that the narrative gave – although the Taliban that we’re all familiar with made an appearance, it was surprising to read that the only immediate effect on the women’s lives was that it was safer for them to walk through the streets.
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