THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS (2012)
By Chris Bohjalian
Random House, 299 pp.
* * *
|Not the most effective cover art (or title)|
Call it unplanned synchronicity. Just as I was getting ready to prepare a lecture for my immigration class that included the Armenian genocide, I picked up a copy of The Sandcastle Girls. In all honesty, I didn't know its subject matter; I only knew I needed a novel to read and that I liked some of Chris Bohjalian's other books. In fact, the title and cover art nearly led me elsewhere as each suggested a teen coming-of-age-at-the-beach book. It's not; it's a harrowing fictionalized treatments of the 1915 murder of 1.5 Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
Bohjalian calls it "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About," and so it is. The Turks would prefer you call it "Self-Defense Against Internal Traitors and Terrorists," but that's sheer rubbish–unless you think small children and their mothers took up arms against a defenseless Ottoman Empire. Actually, Turks would prefer you don't know about how they butchered Armenians like roasting chickens. If you know about that one, you might start asking questions about how they treated Azerbaijanis, Greeks, and Kurds as well. But back to the novel.
It's set in 1915, the year of the massacre and the early days of World War One. (If you need another history lesson, the United States will, in 1917, enter the war on the side of Britain and France against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Turks.) Boston Brahmin and recent Mt. Holyoke grad Elizabeth Endicott decides to accompany her father to Aleppo, Syria, where he will coordinate the regional efforts of the Friends of Armenia. The FOA is a do-good but totally ineffectual relief agency that the Turks brazenly lie to and ignore, and which even the U.S. consulate thinks is just in the way. Elizabeth, though, is undeterred and resolute in her desire to do some good. She may be naïve, but she's not blind and she knows not to trust the Turks when they say they are 'relocating' women and children to keep them out of harm's way (as in a mass grave). Her efforts eventually lead her to take into her household an Armenian woman named Nevart, and a small girl named Hatoun who doesn't say much and is prone to disappearing. As it turns out Hatoun doesn't say much because she witnessed the Turks behead her mother; she latched onto Nevart in a refugee camp. Elizabeth will also eventually meet and fall in love with Armen Petroisan, an engineer who once believed in the Ottoman Empire–until the racists took over and, he is forced to conclude, murdered his daughter and wife.
The novel plays out Elizabeth and Armen's relationship against a backdrop of war and murder–think Dr. Zhivago without the ice palace. There are some fine plot twists, including the unlikely but true story of how the Armenian holocaust was documented through the efforts of two German soldier/photographers who got their images smuggled out the region. There are also harrowing tales from the infamous Battle of Gallipoli bloodbath, peeks inside orphanages, and suggestions that the U.S. pandered when it should have pushed. Elizabeth is also a nice mix of a Braham and the New Woman.
The novel is strongest for what it tells us about "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About." In telling it, Bohjalian uses a device of which I'm not overly fond–using a present-day narrator/snoop to uncover the secrets of the past. In this case, it's Elizabeth's granddaughter and novelist, Laura Petrosian, who recalled her grandmother's "Ottoman Annex" home in Pelham, Massachusetts, but not much about her grandparents. Laura's character and story feel contrived. There are a few too many coincidences and, let's face it, a novelist character from the hands of a novelist feels pretentious. The book's central metaphor, the sandcastle, is itself built upon loose ground, a small incident in the book that you could easily miss if reading late at night. I also couldn't help think of Eleni, which uses the deep, dark family secret trope more effectively. But when we are in Turkey in 1915, the story tells itself. This book won't win style points, but give Bohjalian props for blowing the lid off Turkish silence. If you know little about the Armenian genocide–and that would be most people–this is a good place to start your own snooping into an atrocity whose hundredth birthday we shall soon commemorate.