Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Bohjalian is a prolific writer but this is the first of his novels that I've read - and it was very interesting.  It's actually written as a novel within a novel.  The modern story is an American writer, Laura, who is looking into the lives of her "Armenian grandparents".  I put the Armenian in quotes as in fact her grandfather, Armen, was Armenian but her grandmother, Elizabeth, was a Boston WASP who went to Aleppo during World War I and the Armenian genocide in an effort to chronicle what was happening for the benefit of the American group, The Friends of Armenia.  She accompanies her father, a banker, who has arranged aid and a medical team to assist.  They are hosted by the American consul in Aleppo.

Early in her visit Elizabeth meets Armen, an engineer who is assisting the Germans in building the Ottoman empire's railroads.  She quickly falls in love with the man who is still grieving the loss of his wife and infant daughter who he believes perished in the forced march across the desert which so many Armenian women and children were forced to endure after their husbands were slaughtered.  He is seeking revenge so leaves Aleppo to make his way to Egypt so he can enlist in the British army and fight against the Turks who are decimating his people.

The book is interesting as we follow it from many perspectives - that of Laura, both her grandparents, the American consul, the German engineers, a widowed Armenian woman and the orphan girl she takes under her wing who are both "adopted" by Elizabeth and thus saved the fate of resettlement camps and orphanages, as well as a young Turkish soldier who is ordered to destroy photographs taken by the German engineers to chronicle the carnage but who can't bear to do so.

Looking at the role of the Germans with the benefit of history's hindsight is another interesting aspect of the story.  The German engineers are critical of their ally's genocide and wish to share what is happening with the world.  The criticize the very techniques their countrymen will perfect a generation later.

In the end Laura learns of secrets that her grandparents took to their graves.  And though the secrets are horrific she's pleased to have brought to light an aspect of history which has received less publicity than it deserves.  Though fiction, Bohjalian's book does the same thing - it's a very enlightening though disturbing read.

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