Reviews for writers are part of the Courageous Writing blog in which I attempt to break apart how a writer has created an effective work of art that we can attempt to emulate.
I have just finished one of the best books I have ever read. If you haven’t read A Thousand Splendid Suns, I won’t spoil anything here. Instead, I will explore what Hosseini has done to create such a beautiful, inspiring work to help us as writers learn from one of the best.
To begin, let me share the first few paragraphs of the novel with you. Then, I will break them up to analyze what’s going so well here.
“Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.
It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother’s Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam’s mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who had died when Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot’s spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.
It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam’s fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered.
When Nana saw the bowl, her face flushed red and her upper lip shivered, and her eyes, both the lazy one and the good, settled on Mariam in a flat, unblinking way. Nana looked so mad that Mariam feared the jinn would enter her mother’s body again. But the jinn didn’t come, not that time. Instead, Nana grabbed Mariam by the wrists, pulled her close, and, through gritted teeth, said, “You are a clumsy little harami. This is my reward for everything I’ve endured. An heriloom-breaking, clumsy little harami.”
At the time, Mariam did not understand. She did not know what this word harami–bastard–meant. Nor was she old enough to appreciate the injustice, to see that it is not the creators of the harami who are culpable, not the harami, whose only sin is being born. Mariam did surmise, by the way Nana said the word, that it was an ugly, loathsome thing to be a harami, like an insect, like the scurrying cockroaches Nana was always cursing and sweeping out of the kolba.”
From these first paragraphs, the reader already knows a lot about the setting, the characters, and the plot. Yet we are not being told about these but shown through carefully-placed details. We are not bored because we have already been given many things to wonder about, such as what a harami is or why the girl only sees her father on Thursdays. We are also given the promise that we are going to be brought into a scene, which we are given with concrete details we can see and feel and touch.
More than that, we are taken, throughout these paragraphs, on an emotional journey that sets up the rest of the novel. We sense that the word harami is a negative word because of the attention placed on it. The detail about her father comes simply through the author’s decision that it was a Thursday, allowing Hosseini to mention this detail early in the chapter to show that the girl’s father and mother are not together. We know that Mariam wants to be with her father but that her relationship with her mother is tense. Even though Mariam doesn’t know the word, she has an emotional reaction from it, and the reader is introduced to one of her central conflicts. Through all of this, we know what the tone of this novel will be. We are promised a book with complex characters and emotions.
It may seem strange to discuss world building in a realistic novel, but the setting of the book is one of the most important aspects. Hosseini brings us into the world through narrative, never taking long-winded breaks to tell us about the world.
From the first few paragraphs, we know that Mariam and her mother live in a humble home where cockroaches must be swept. But, rather than telling us the house has cockroaches, Hosseini has Mariam compare herself to a cockroach, so he achieves his description while creating an emotional resonance at the same time. The floorboards are described in the same way through the action of Mariam dropping the sugar bowl.
We also know this is a place where heirlooms have value and depictions of dragons are believed to have supernatural powers. The people, then, are likely superstitious. This is further shown when Mariam worries about her mother’s jinn, which comes from an Arabian myth about a spirit who possesses people. We soon suspect that her mother has seizures, though they are blamed on this spirit.
Many other examples throughout the book show descriptions of food, pop culture, history, religion, clothing, and others. They are not described arbitrarily but are part of the story itself. The details, rather than being distracting, enrich the story and make it come alive, adding to the emotional journey of the characters.
Hosseini’s writing is poetic, with a style that exceeds the “literary” genre in its deliberateness. But what does it mean to have “poetic” style? We often use this description, but how can we define it in a way that allows us to emulate it?
Reading Hosseini, a few specific words come to mind: intentional, detailed, and rhythmic.
Look again at these two sentences:
“Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot’s spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.
“It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam’s fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered.”
A great poet learns how to cut the unnecessary, to chip away the rough edges until only a clean, precise image is left. The details above are vivid but simple and intentional. Hosseini is telling us about Nana’s sentiments and tastes while also showing what this world looks like. Because of this intent, he didn’t need to describe the entire tea set. He only needed those four main details to create quick images that the reader completes in their minds.
There is also rhythm to these sentences. The first is a long list of images, but the variations in the length of each “item” on the list creates a natural flow. The second sentence is shorter, but it is also organized to create an emotional effect. First, we see the bowl slip through Mariam’s fingers, and then we see it shatter.
Finally, he uses syntax to create resonance by ending sentences with the words that create the strongest response. “…ward off evil” leaves us with curiosity. “…shattered” leaves us broken, wondering what Nana will do.
- Start your first pages with an emotional thread. What do you want the reader to feel as they enter into your book? This is a promise to your reader about what to expect from the rest of the book.
- Let descriptions of setting become part of the characterization or storytelling rather than arbitrary details.
- Give just enough details that the reader can complete the image in their minds.
- Vary sentence length
- Use syntax to create emotional resonance