REVIEWED BY WENDY PLOTKIN
The Sandcastle Girls
By Chris Bohjalian
New York: Doubleday (July 17, 2012)
299 pages, $25.95
Chris Bohjalian’s 14th novel, The Sandcastle Girls, is a moving depiction of the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide told through the experiences of a group of very different individuals who find themselves in Ottoman Aleppo in 1915. At the heart of the novel is a love story between Armen Petrosian, a survivor of Turkish brutality, and Elizabeth Endicott, a Boston Brahmin who has traveled to Aleppo to perform relief work with her father. While the love story propels the novel forward, it is Bohjalian’s unflinching description of what happened to the Armenians during the genocide that makes this book so affecting.
The novel moves between the present day—through the musings of a novelist, Laura Petrosian, who is in the process of exploring her family’s history—and 1915, telling the story of Laura’s grandparents. Bohjalian starts with Laura’s memories of spending time in her grandparents’ suburban New York home, which her mother affectionately referred to as the “Ottoman Annex.” Throughout the book, the portions of the novel that are set in the present day are a vehicle for Laura’s internal thoughts and feelings about her Armenian identity, and how that identity is connected to the genocide.
When a friend of Laura’s tells her she saw a picture of her grandmother at an exhibit of photographs from the genocide, Laura sets out on a search to discover her family’s link to the genocide. This search will eventually lead to the revelation of a sad family secret, and it is Laura’s effort to unearth this secret that drives her to delve deeper into the story of how her grandparents met and fell in love.
Laura was disconnected from her Armenian heritage, but as she discovers her family’s history, she becomes emotionally involved in discovering how the genocide touched her family. It is likely that Laura is Bohjalian’s alter ego since Mr. Bohjalian and his heroine share a similar background, and he performed extensive research into the genocide as part of this project. Bohjalian is well known for being particularly adept at writing female narrators, and he once again succeeds here in creating a book that is most successful when told from the female perspective.
The novel quickly moves from Laura’s memories of her grandparents to the story of how they met in 1915. Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy Bostonian, travels to Syria with her father, a banker, on behalf of “The Friends of Armenia,” a charitable organization in the Boston area. When we first meet Elizabeth she nearly faints under the Middle Eastern sun as she and her father tour the main square of Aleppo with an American diplomat, Ryan Martin. But it is not just the sun that causes Elizabeth to become faint; she is confronted with hundreds of Armenian refugees—women and children, who have been marched across the desert by the Turkish army and into the square. They have been treated brutally along the way; they are naked and most are barely alive. Elizabeth is shocked, saddened, and feels helpless as to what she could possibly do to help these women. Through Elizabeth’s interactions with these refugees Bohjalian brings out the personal stories of the genocide—the starvation, the beatings, the rapes, and the murdered husbands, brothers, and sons.
Shortly after her arrival in Aleppo, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer who is working with two sympathetic German army engineers. The Germans have been photographing the Armenian refugees in an effort to document the situation. Although it sounds (and to some extent reads) cliché, there is an instant connection between Elizabeth and Armen, and amidst the horrors of the war and the genocide, Bohjalian creates a classic romantic love story. Armen and Elizabeth are drawn to each other’s “differentness”—Elizabeth is taken with Armen’s dark eyes and long eyelashes, and Armen is taken with Elizabeth’s hair. They form a quick bond and when Armen leaves to join the British Army in the Dardanelles, they write letters to each other regularly. It is in his letters that Armen is able to share with Elizabeth his genocide story, how his wife and daughter were likely killed during a forced march from Eastern Turkey to Syria (it was his search for his family that had brought him to Aleppo). It is only through his letters than Armen can open up to Elizabeth and share this tragedy and the violent actions he was driven to take in response.
The portion of the novel set in 1915 is told from many perspectives—Elizabeth, Armen, the German engineers, a Turkish soldier. In addition the story is told through the eyes of two Armenian females Elizabeth meets and befriends in the Aleppo square, a widow, Nevart in his early thirties, and an orphan girl, Hatoon. Nevart and Hatoon become surrogate family to each other, and Elizabeth becomes so close with them that she insists they live with her at the American Embassy despite the protestations of her father and other missionaries. What Bohjalian achieves by presenting the story through these multiple voices is a complete portrait of the genocide that is rich in personal detail. The most meaningful and devastating portions of the story are those that are told from the perspective of the young orphan girl Hatoon, who witnessed her whole family brutalized and murdered by Turkish soldiers. Hatoon is deeply damaged by her experiences and her tale is heartbreaking, but her survival and ability to form connections with other survivors and non-Armenians injects some hope into the story.
This book is about many things—a love story, a war, a woman’s independence and coming of age. But more than anything this novel is about the genocide.
Bohjalian’s fans will find this book different from many of the books in his catalog, which focus on a hot progressive issue of the day such as midwifery, holistic medicine, transgender identity, and homelessness. The scope of The Sandcastle Girls is almost epic in comparison. While there are the rich personal stories that his readers connect to, what he has achieved is much larger. Bohjalian has written a compelling and powerful novel that will bring the history of the genocide to a wide audience.
The Sandcastle Girls will remain ingrained in your consciousness.