29 May 2012

Book (P)Review: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

While the emotional content of this book is trademark Bohjalian, the writer takes on a new depth and historical perspective in Sandcastle Girls that is not usually present in his more formulaic novels. Unsurprising, since this novel is the first that delves into his own history.

The little I knew about Turkish-Armenian relations came from working at a used bookstore, where a customer of mine bought up everything he could on Armenia. Occasionally he would toss out historical facts but eventually I learned it was a topic he didn't want to fully engage in, so it was fascinating to read this book as a first attempt to fill in some of the historical blanks. 

(Incidentally, this is the third novel of genocide I've read this year: Rwandan, Cambodian, and now this one, which I guess means my taste run to the dark side, at least when it comes to historical fiction. It also happens to be the fourth novel in a row that I've picked up that features a Muslim/Christian conflict, so it's interesting to me to see these unconscious reading patterns of mine.)

The novel has two main time frames. One is a contemporary, middle-aged first person narrator named Laura living in NY who investigates her Armenian roots and reminisces about her childhood. The other is a third person narration that begins in Aleppo, Syria, in 1915, mostly following Laura's paternal grandparents Armen, an Armenian engineer who has survived the Turks' first onslaught against his people, and Elizabeth, a Bostonian blueblood who has traveled to Syria with her father to give aid and succour to the refugees. Occasionally the narration darts over to Nevart, a widowed refugee, and to Hatoun, an orphan who has witnessed such unspeakable atrocities against her family that she has become practically mute herself, as well as other, more minor characters.

War casualties are awful things and this novel's World War I setting proves no exception, but it's particularly difficult to read of the crimes perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire against some of its own civilians, and the twisted logic and false rhetoric they use to justify their actions is appalling.

I can't possibly pretend to know or understand the centuries-old history between the Turks and the Armenians, or how the Ottoman Empire selected the Armenians for extermination over all of the other peoples under its sway. But there is a portion of this novel presented as fact, and if it's true, then it's utterly galling, and I will excerpt some of it here:

"If you visit Ankara or Istanbul today, you will find streets and school named after Talat Pasha ["the real visionary" behind the Armenian genocide]....In other words, the nation that found Talat Pasha guilty of attempting to wipe out a race of people later named concourses after him.
   How is that possible? Because, to much of the nation--though, thankfully, not all--that genocide never happened. Even now, labelilng the slaughter of 1915 "genocide" can land a Turkish citizen in jail and get a Turkish Armenian journalist killed (179)."

If that is true (and Bohjalian did not footnote it or document it, so I don't know), then it really blows my mind.  It's impossible to imagine the German citizens of today wanting to glorify Adolf Hitler in a parallel manner, renaming any of the schools or thoroughfares for him. How is it possible that the citizens of Turkey are, as a nation, able to do so?


  1. Supposedly when Hitler was asked about exterminating Europe's Jewish population, he said, "No one remembers the Armenians." I don't know if the novel gets into this, but there was really widespread awareness about the genocide in the United States and lots of famous people trying to draw attention to it. That the Turkish government still denies any role of the Ottoman Empire in the Armenian genocide has been a sticking point for them entering the European Union. Sounds like an interesting book. What are the other two novels of genocide (I guess I also have a dark mind)?

  2. Robyn, I didn't know that little piece of information re: Hitler & nobody remembering the Armenians. There are two German soldier characters in this book who are appalled at what their allies are doing to the Armenians, and one of them says to the other, you would never see this happening in Germany or anyplace else in Europe. we're too civilzed. dramatic irony, eh?

    Anyway, the other two books that I read were Running the Rift, set in Rwanda and published by Algonquin earlier this year, and In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree which is about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, but it's not published until August of this year.

    The novel does get into, at least a little, about America's knowledge of what was happening to the armenians, and that's why many Americans wanted the US to enter WWI. the young woman from Boston went to Syria as part of a relief effort for the Armenian refugees being rounded up in Aleppo. She was part of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia society.

  3. I have this book from NetGalley and I'm really looking forward to reading it. It seems like you found it a thought-provoking experience.

  4. I love stuff like this...I'm constantly caught off guard by how much history I DON'T know...thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I felt that one of the strengths of the novel is how well Bohalian foreshadows the Nazi Holocaust in these pages. He never comes out and screams, "Isn't ironic that the Germans were horrified by this genocide?!?!" but it's subtly there. I highly recommend this novel for its glimpse into part of history that most of us don't know, and for the characters for whom the reader comes to care deeply.

    1. Well...I didn't think it was all that subtle, actually. I thought he was fairly obvious on that point, but I agree that this novel is rewarding because it does highlight a part of history that most US readers are unfamiliar with.

  7. Many may find this story quite heartbreaking, but there is a sense of hope in the book as well. It shows how people persevere and continue with life when all seems lost.


Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)