Some of the best writers in life are emissaries. Their words take us to a different place, time or life, that helps us, the uninitiated readers, begin to understand and comprehend a world that we’ve not encountered before. Khaled Hosseini is one of those writers, yet his words do more than transport us elsewhere: they teach us the meaning of gratitude.
How would you feel if you read, for instance, that more than 150,000 Afghans have been killed since the start of the war in their country? That there are 2.6 million registered refugees, but millions more displaced, roaming from town to town and looking for safety? It’s these horrendous thoughts that are only emphasised by the fact this has been happening for the past four decades, with many being forced from their homes to never see their loved ones again. In an interview he gave to The Guardian in 2017, Hosseini said “Everybody knows there’s a war, but once you feel what that war means, it becomes that much harder to simply dismiss or move past. It prickles your consciousness” and it’s this that perfectly encapsulates my experience of reading his novels.
Having read The Kite Runner on holiday when I was 15 and enjoyed the soulful story-telling that the book entailed, it was only when I came across A Thousand Splendid Suns a few years later, that my eyes became fully open to the complete devastation that war brings. The novel tells the powerful story of how two women brought up in vastly different ways find themselves in the same unyielding circumstances in war-torn Afghanistan. As I read it, fourteen-year-old Laila became the character I felt I could relate to – we shared a similar sense of purpose and a love of education – but as her story unfolded in front of me, the way she lost her entire family, her house and friends, in the split of a second, completely broke me. I remember thinking about my parents and my sisters, imagining what my life would be like if I had lost them just like Laila had, and I remember even more the overwhelming sense of gratitude that immediately took over my heart. This was real life, and it was happening to millions of families.
It’s interesting how reading the same thing at a different time in your life can have a different impact on you. Upon my second read, I encountered more of the nuances of the story: Mariam’s gradual relatedness to her own Mother, Laila’s stubbornness on her right to exist as an educated woman in the presence of men, how both women remained unwavering in a world of constant upheaval. This allowed me to realise that the novel was about so much more than the devastation of war and what unfailingly catches me off guard each time I have read it since is that it is in fact love that wins in the end. Throughout all the pain, hope still exists and that is the beauty of gratitude.
When we hear about the risks and losses that come with life, or when our own livelihood is under threat, we begin to question the things that we take for granted. We prioritise and put health, safety, family and friends above wealth and material gain. It is stories like Hosseini’s that allow us to realise how lucky we are to be able to do that.
Illustration: Verity Laycock