Saturday, September 26, 2009
THE 19th WIFE – David Ebershoff
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS – Khalid Hosseini
Do you remember the fashion for blockbuster novels during the 1980s – each novel was two inches thick and told the story of a scary superwoman who wore designer clothes, travelled to designer locations, ate designer food and had (hair-raisingly detailed) sexual dalliances with designer men?
“All cash and no class,” said my mother, when one famous lady ‘bonkbuster’ novelist admitted to ‘typewriter turn-on’ as she described yet another champagne soaked orgy in the pages of her new work in progress…
I’m quite sure had that lady author been informed of my mother’s low opinion of her she’d have cried all the way to the bank. And anyway, mum was only mad that I couldn’t leave the book down long enough to wash the dishes. She couldn’t quite understand or accept the whole point of a blockbuster is its addictive quality.
Anyway, I’m happy to announce the blockbuster is back, but this time it’s dressed in different clothes, and now the genre is dominated by male authors. And instead of a story about a scary superwoman the new themes are religious fanaticism and polygamy.
At first I thought A Thousand Splendid Suns was simply the very sad story of two Afghani women, living in Kabul, married to a pig of a husband. Then I realised the novel was coming everywhere with me – I was reading it at red traffic lights, and in the queue at the supermarket. I slept beside it in bed. I propped it up behind the taps when I was doing the washing up.
“Surely you’re still not reading that book?” asked Nick at 2 in the morning.
I told him, “It’s utterly fascinating the terrible way the husband is treating them. And they’ve nobody to turn to because the law is on his side. He’s allowed to beat them up, bully them and repress them and the young pretty wife has a secret boyfriend, whose leg was blown off by a landmine at the time the Mujahedeen were heroes because they were trying to clear Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. When the husband finds out about the affair he’s going to kill her and they way the law is, they’ll probably give him a medal...”
It’s a temporary madness, this addictive reading. I was exhausted for a week after I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns. Then my sister leant me The 19th Wife and the addiction started all over again. Again I didn’t fully realise I was reading another blockbuster. This is a story about a religious cult called the First Latter Day Saints who still practise polygamy in the 21st Century, though the established Mormon Church gave up the practise in the 1890s. Dad is blown to bits with a Big Boy while chatting up the ladies on an internet site in his den in the basement of his polygamous house. His 19th wife is accused of the killing. Her excommunicated son tries to solve the mystery of his father’s murder – he knows his mother isn’t the killer, he knows she has always been content to follow the prophet’s teachings about polygamous marriage and submission to one’s husband - it seems that God told Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, that agreeing to a ‘celestial marriage’ was the only way a woman could get into heaven. And lots of women chose to believe it.
“Handy for the men,” I told Nick.
“What a nightmare,” said Nick. “I think one wife is enough for anybody.”
VERDICT: Do you have a long flight ahead of you? Or perhaps a hospital appointment? Take a modern blockbuster with you. You won’t notice the time passing.