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In a time of chaos, an indestructible friendship forms

A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead, 372 pp., $25.95

Let's get the unspoken question out of the way first: No, it's not "The Kite Runner." Khaled Hosseini's debut novel was a once-in-a-blue-moon success -- a deeply moving book that enthralled millions of readers with its spare prose and tremendous plotline.

The nature of miracles is that they don't repeat themselves. And so, let us judge and praise Hosseini's second novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," for what it is: a heartfelt, well-realized character study of two women and a lament for the tortured history of the author's native Afghanistan.

The first aspect of the novel works better than the second. Hosseini's empathy for and insights into his two main characters are laudable. However, his attempt to run through three decades of Afghani history at times feels heavy-handed and self-conscious.

But ultimately, readers won't care much about the names of the mujahadeen fighters and the presidents who topple and replace one another with alarming frequency during the book's time span. What they will remember are the names of the two women -- Mariam and Laila -- whose reluctant friendship is the heart of the novel. Hosseini clearly has an affinity for society's weakest members; if "Kite Runner" told the devastating story of two boys struggling to remain friends despite class differences, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" tells the story of another vulnerable group -- women.

On the surface, it is their common husband, Rasheed, who brings together these two women, who share precious little else. Mariam is poor and illiterate, the illegitimate child of a rich businessman . Laila is pampered and educated, raised in a liberal, secular family . In normal circumstances, Laila and Mariam -- who is old enough to be Laila's mother -- would have never met, much less lived under the same roof.

But the Afghanistan of the 1970s and '80s was anything but normal. Hosseini is convincing in depicting a country wrecked by warring ideologies, fighting factions, and outside invasions. Both women are orphaned: Laila literally, Mariam when her father washes his hands of her by marrying her off to Rasheed.

Hosseini accurately depicts the casual misogyny by which the two women are victimized. His portrait of Rasheed is nuanced and complex -- it takes a while for Rasheed to reveal his true character. Hosseini does a convincing job linking the decline and coarsening of Afghani civil life to Rasheed's descent into violence, conservatism, and narrow-mindedness.

The marvel of "A Thousand Splendid Suns" -- the title comes from a description of Kabul by a 17th-century Persian poet -- lies in the fact that although much of the narrative unfolds in the cloistered, oppressive world of Rasheed's home, where the two women eventually join forces against his tyranny, the novel ends up as an allegory of a fractured society that has come apart at the seams. Somehow we are made to understand that as heartbreaking as Laila and Mariam's story is, their joyless, bleak existence is the fate of millions of other Afghani women.

Despite the book's grim subject matter, there are moments of levity and transcendence, such as when Kabul is gripped by "Titanic" fever in the summer of 2000, with Laila's daughter, Aziza, insisting on being called Jack and demanding that Mariam be Rose. And Hosseini has crafted an enduring (and redeeming) character in Tariq, Laila's childhood friend who flees war-torn Afghanistan for India. Tariq's bookish, gentle nature is a nice counterpoint to Rasheed's brutal presence.

Much like its predecessor, "Splendid Suns" achieves a kind of epic, operatic quality at the end, where the full extent of the two women's love for each other is tested and one of them rises beautifully and tragically to the challenge. In Hosseini's world, love and happiness always have to be earned, and often one is made possible only by the sacrifice of another.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels "The Space Between Us" and the recent "If Today Be Sweet."

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