My favorite thing about Chris Bohjalian is that when I sit down to read one of his novels, I never know where I’m going to be taken. Novelists, including most of my favorites, tend to write books that are similar. There are usually familiar themes, character types, settings, time periods or, at the very least, the same genre. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this—it’s often the reason that I continue to read some of the authors that I do. There are certain familiar worlds to which I am always happy to return.
It takes a great level of creativity and skill, however, to do as Bohjalian does and go from writing about midwifery in rural Vermont to exploring transgender issues to Jay Gatsby’s Roaring Twenties or the waning days of World War II (just to name a few.) I enjoy the fact that last year’s release, The Night Strangers, was a chilling contemporary ghost story and psychological thriller and his latest book ,The Sandcastle Girls, (which will be out on July 17) is about as far away from that as you can possibly get.
It is quite evident that The Sandcastle Girls is a book close to Bohjalian’s own heart. The novel shares a piece of history that many readers are likely rather unfamiliar with—the Armenian Genocide. The novel’s narrator calls the genocide “the slaughter you know nothing about.” I didn’t, before reading this book. These events, which took place between 1915 and 1923, were carried out by the Turkish government against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. It is estimated that more than a million and a half Armenians were slaughtered outright or taken to the desert in Syria to perish slowly. This is generally known as the first genocide of the twentieth century, though to this day allies of Turkey are hesitant to recognize the fact. That includes the United States.
The tale shifts between present day and the events of 1915. The narrator is Laura Petrosian, a novelist (the author admits it is a female version of himself) of Armenian descent. Petrosian recalls fond memories of her grandparents’ home and the pervasive Armenian feel of it, but neither she nor anyone else in the family is aware of the events that occurred around their meeting.
Armen Petrosian, a grieving Armenian survivor who has no idea what became of his young wife and infant daughter, and Elizabeth Endicott, a Bostonian who has accompanied her father on a relief mission to Syria to aid the exiled Armenians, meet and fall deeply in love. The events that occur are recorded by letters between the two, as Elizabeth remains in Syria and Armen joins in the fighting against the Turks in the Dardanelles. Simultaneously, a young pair of German engineers, while technically allied with the Turks, are horrified by the treatment of the Armenians and begin taking illegal photographs of the victims, intending to somehow share this with the world.
It is one of these photographs, published in a newspaper years later, that captures Laura’s interest and leads her to the letters and papers of her grandmother, which tell the tale that no one in her family has ever been privy to.
The novel is layered, with Laura’s voice frequently entering to provide background information and history lessons and this method is masterfully done. It would appear as though we know the end of the tale at the beginning – Armen and Elizabeth clearly got married, moved to the United States and produced children and grandchildren. It is a testament to Bohjalian’s writing and storytelling skills that he still manages to create a tale that keeps the reader spellbound and in suspense. We learn all of the secrets along with Laura, and the end results in combined joy, hope and heartbreak.
It’s obviously not a pleasant tale by any means. I have a particularly hard time as a mother with detailed scenes describing children being carted away for death and a particularly heartrending image of a mother carrying her dead infant for days. Bohjalian cannot tell this tale without adding the horror in full detail—what would be the point otherwise? However, knowing that Armen and Elizabeth clearly make it to old age adds a little bit of comfort for the reader. The jaunts back to Laura and our familiar modern world also provide brief respites from the images of war and horror. Bohjalian’s characters, including the brave, funny German engineers, the kindly Muslim doctor, the widow and orphan girl who are thrown together during the march and become each other’s family, the American consul determined to get the truth of the genocide to the outside world, and many others provide the hope that is needed in order to wallow through the suffering.
Chris Bohjalian uses his own grandparents as the inspiration for this novel. While he says on his website that The Sandcastle Girls is complete fiction and that Armen and Elizabeth’s tale in Syria is not his grandparents’ story (though they were in Western Turkey during the genocide,) Laura’s remembrances of experiences in her grandparents’ home in Boston are his own memories. As in the book, his mother referred to the home as “the Ottoman Annex.” The book is clearly an homage to his heritage and to his family, and it is a very worthy one.
Read this one, and his others. You won’t regret it.
Until next time,