(re-blogging my November piece for Authors Electric)
Writers need to keep reading – possibly a meme – but also, wise words. What better way to learn the art of good writing than to read much, and widely, from childhood onwards? Though whether that list on an Amazon page, ‘people who bought this also bought’, (or however it’s phrased) give much guidance that the books mentioned there will also please and entertain the reader of the main book featured is much guidance, I doubt. Because inspiration is a strange thing. In answer to a question (on Facebook, some years ago) ‘Waterstones Invite Readers To Share Books That Changed Their Lives’, I have a record that I responded, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’.
I had recently consumed A Thousand Splendid Suns hungrily, page after page. Hosseini grips his reader with a powerful range of questions, emotions, attitudes, not only with page-turning plot. He lets you see a person in a certain light: then turns on another, and your view is totally different. Both are ‘true’, even though both are ‘opposite’. And the end, in a satisfying way, is actually fairy-tale in its simplicity and happiness, a final feel-good factor after all the angst. That works: the reader is left on a high, rather than ‘and that was a sad book’ or ‘well he couldn’t decide so left it open…’ Hosseini is a master. In his next novel, And the Mountains Echoed we are shown, sympathetically, a sensitive, thoughtful Afghan-born doctor’s reaction to a wounded child in a Kabul hospital. She had been horrifically wounded in body and emotions: not by war, but by her jealous uncle’s violent attack on her family. We agree with the guy’s feelings, thoughts, and actions… at the same time, we are turned off by his cousin the wideboy’s behaviour.
Hosseini then tells the story of when the two guys returned to their homes in California. And the situation and future of the child are skilfully revealed in, at the last, a couple of sentences, maybe a short paragraph and in very telling words.
As a reader, you find yourself carrying this ending around with you, until you realise, yes: that is being human. That is how people are. Action, however crass the actor is, gets things done…Here is a writer who has his finger on the pulse of who and what we are, all of us, rattling around this world. Trying or meaning to do good. Or the opposite. Or being indifferent. Unfaithful. Caught up in a life too busy.
A Thousand Splendid Suns didn’t only grab me because it’s feminist, and written by a guy, although the way he manages this is pretty insightful. It isn’t solely because it informs me about a culture very different to my own. Which is, it seems, always in and out of the News, having a long history of being a football kicked around by the surrounding countries and cultures, and some very far away. It’s these and more: Hosseini never ever uses clichés: whether of thought, situation, metaphor or phrase.
Also, and incidentally, when I was a small kid, there was a book in the family bookcase which had grabbed my attention by its title: *Conflict Angora to Afghanistan. For a moment, imagine a six year old: I knew what angora was, because I had a cherished angora bolero (there’s two lovely, non-English words held together by description, and belonging to two very different cultures!). I wore this proudly birthday parties. It was the softest woolly garment imaginable. It was angora… but what was Afghanistan? And how did that title all fit together to make sense? And to add another couple of long-ago lurking child thoughts, I’ve always felt a kind of a pull towards the exotic, since I’ve a small, Greek-island, heritage, and a love of Oriental carpets.
But to return to the grown-up world: reading A Thousand Splendid Suns changed my life because the experience underlined my determination that it is possible to write about parts of your own, possibly obscure, culture in a way that challenges readers with the universal, every-culture, questions. And appeals, because of that, to the universal reader. It gave me faith that I don’t have to write what’s in vogue if I want to be read. Hosseini writes powerfully, insightfully, and gets inside the problems of being a human being: I am challenged to do that too.
Above all, his writing skill challenged me to aim the highest I can, in whatever I write. To scatter the big questions across the page within the context of a story. To talk to the people out there, reading, about their own humanity while entertaining them with the questions, anxieties, and events through the lives these particular weird characters. That’s what the best traditional stories do, what Hosseini does, and what I try to do.
Described as ‘the… adventures of a well-known traveller’, Conflict Angora to Afghanistan by Rosita Forbes (note, a woman), is a book, published 1931, which traces and comments on events sadly similar to an area of the ‘Middle Eastern’ world which continues to be troubled by war and conflict. I’ve no clear idea why we had it but there could be several reasons for the interest.
(Note: I believe he’s now gone back to practicing medicine, since he feels he has no more to say to say through fiction: now there’s something to consider. If we are ‘stuck’ or have no further burning ideas – then is it maybe time to stop, rather than to force oneself onwards, and write lesser books?)