The novel begins in 1974, when Mariam is fifteen. She lives with her single mother in an isolated spot outside of Herat, an Afghan community of artists. Mariam’s father, Jalil, runs the local movie theater. He does not live with her. Mariam’s mother, whom Mariam calls Nana, was a servant in Jalil’s home when she became pregnant. Jalil had three other wives and never offered to marry Mariam’s mother. Instead, he built a modest house for her on a hill out of town. Jalil comes to visit Mariam once a week and charms her into believing the he will one day fully claim her. Nana, a bitter and sickly woman, tries to destroy Mariam’s fantasies of her father. Mariam’s mother is fully aware that Jalil will eventually betray Mariam, which he does. Although Jalil finally takes Mariam into his home, he gives in to his wives’ demands to send Mariam away by offering her as a bride to an older man.
Her future husband is Rasheed, a successful shoemaker in Kabul. He is a big man, and his size alone frightens Mariam when she first sees him. Before she leaves her father’s side, Mariam swears she will never again speak to him for not allowing her to stay in his house.
Rasheed believes that a man should rule over his wife. He does not allow Mariam to go outside without him, and she must also dress in a burka whenever they leave the home. Mariam, however, remains in Rasheed’s relative good favor until she has a miscarriage and fails several more times to bear a child. With each of his wife’s miscarriages, Rasheed becomes crueler and more distant. Soon she is routinely beaten for trivial and often made-up reasons.
The story then switches to Laila, who... [continues]
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