The Sandcastle Girls – Chris Bohjalian


I often mention how odd it is to start a Netgalley book without easy access to the synopsis; unless I know the publisher or author works in a specific genre, I’m at a loss, having read the book description before requesting it and then, being me, having promptly forgotten it among the other few dozen I asked for. It’s drastically changed my reading habits, this Kindle/Netgalley combo. So, Sandcastle Girls: sounds like a beach book!

It’s not. It’s really not.

One of the two threads of the book could almost fit into that subgenre. The book is couched as the first-person narrative of Laura, a woman who in her forties begins an investigation into the experiences of her parents and grandparents – her paternal grandparents having been witnesses to the “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”: the genocide of Armenians by Turkey. The book is partly first-person past tense from her point of view, and partly third-person present tense from the angle of the grandparents and some of those who intersect with them in 1915. Laura’s story – her first love and the tension of the boy’s Turkish heritage that managed to taint it even when neither teen cared about the history, and her present-day commonplace travails and investigations – might have stood alone as a light read, well-written and enjoyable for its wry and warm tone. The love story of her grandparents might, if glanced at quickly, have passed as a romance novel if set against a vague and menacing background. Either of these books could have been the one that was written. Neither was, not entirely.

Reading an e-book, I find, is more and more like reading in a vacuum. It’s more difficult to return to the beginning, to the title page or copyright page (or at least it is on my Kindle), and it’s not an option to simply turn the book around and read the author’s name. I admit to a moment of adjustment at reaching the end and the acknowledgements and finding that this was, start to finish, a work of historical fiction: the narrator was not the writer. Chalk it up to sheer skill that I started thinking she might be by the end.

It’s not a true story in its specifics: there was no moment when a woman named Laura Petrosian, stood in her kitchen trying to juggle the itineraries and menus of her active family and received a fateful telephone call from a friend. There never was a young woman named Elizabeth Endicott who went with her father from Nob Hill to Aleppo, Syria, as part of a contingency from the Friends of Armenia, aiming to help refugees of the genocide of which some few bits of news have leaked out despite Turkey’s iron grip. There never was a young Armenian engineer named Armen Petrosian who was in Aleppo at the same time trying to determine how his life could or would go on after his wife and baby daughter were murdered with so many thousands of others, who fell abruptly and hopelessly in love with Elizabeth, and she with him.

There is now.

The story is fiction, the details of the story not fact – but the story is very, very true. Laura’s family history borrows liberally from Chris Bohajalian’s (and even without his notes I would now know what the “-ian” at the end of his name means). There were horribly misnamed “refugee camps” in Aleppo, in Van and its surrounds. There is a truth underlying this tale which broke my heart. The massacre no one knows about – I didn’t. And the more time that passes since I finished this book, the more anger builds up in me that I never heard of this atrocity before. How can it be that the slaughter of very nearly an entire people has not been shouted from the rooftops – or, at least, from the front of every history classroom? There was a PBS documentary in 2006, which I don’t even remember being promoted.

Come to find out there were several missionaries originally from Connecticut – New Britain and Hartford – who were murdered early on in the atrocities (which went on for decades without, it seems, anyone really doing much to stop it). Again, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this.

There was so much that startled me about the history. The Turks were allies of the Germans in WWI – but the Germans as represented in this book were shocked and disapproving of what was going on in Armenia and Syria (where there is, right now, a whole new genocide taking place), if quietly so for fear of alienating their ally. Yet some of the means and methods and motivations of the slaughter were echoed some twenty-five years later as Jews and so many others began disappearing under Germany. There was the use of train cars – packed train cars – to transport huge numbers to their fates. There was the wholesale appropriation and/or destruction of the property of those being exterminated; the initial targeting of the intelligentsia; the expedient technique of lining up naked men of the objectionable group along the edge of a pre-dug pit, and then gunning them down so that they fell tidily into said mass grave. Is this where Hitler got some of his inspiration? Were there German soldiers on the sidelines who did not disapprove, but in fact took notes?

Another moment of realization was a fitting together of puzzle pieces, at a mention that it was Muslim Kurds doing a great deal of the killing. Wait, I thought – the same Kurds who faced considerable persecution of their own not so long ago? It’s too grim and horrible to be called irony.

“I found myself focused on children and food. Because of the Proustian madeleines from my own childhood, this seemed a viable entry into a story that might otherwise be one mind-numbing horror after another.” – From the author’s blog.

This history might have been merely horrible in another writer’s hands, some catalogue of horrors and grisly detail. Anyone could recite the evils being done. Another writer might have trivialized the tragedy by tacking a romance onto it. What Chris Bojahalian did with The Sandcastle Girls, with Elizabeth and Armen and Hatoun and Nevart and Karine, and with Laura, was to make it real, and personal, and utterly unforgettable.

The inevitable carpet

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1 Response to The Sandcastle Girls – Chris Bohjalian

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (4/5). A harrowing tale of right and wrong. | Taking on a World of Words

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