Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

The Sandcastle GirlsThe Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chris Bohjalian refers to the Armenian Genocide as “the slaughter you know next to nothing about.” This horrific event involved the mass murder of Armenians living in what is now Turkey. In my case Bohjalian's statement was true until I read his wonderful novel, The Sandcastle Girls. Here is a quote from Wikipedia about the Armenian Genocide:

It took place during and after World War 1 and was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and forced labor, and the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches to the Syrian Desert. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million.

The Sandcastle Girls bounces back and forth between the period when World War 1 was  in its early stages and the present time. It is about Laura Petrosian, a novelist, who is shown an old photograph of a woman who suffered through the Genocide and who shared Laura's last name. This picture starts Laura's effort to learn more about the history of her ancestors. The portions of the book that take place during the early twentieth century tell us about Laura's grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, as she arrives in Syria with her father. They are on a humanitarian mission to help the victims. The first day Elizabeth is in Syria she sees surviving women from one of the marches.

These women are completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. And it is the hair, long and straight though filthy and impossibly tangled, that causes her to understand that these woman are white – at least they were once – and they are, in fact, not old at all, Many might be her age or even a little younger. All are beyond modesty, beyond caring. Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous.

The novel views the genocide from a short distance. We hear about the massacres of the Armenian men, but we don't see them. And Elizabeth is in Syria, so the women she sees are the survivors. Along the way many of the women were raped and some were slaughtered for fun, but we find out about those crimes through second hand stories or the recollections of characters such as Nevart, an Armenian woman who has taken on the care of Hatoun, a young, silent, orphan girl.

Bohjalian's book is not only about genocide. The story also covers other, smaller aspects of the characters' lives. Elizabeth falls in love with an Armenian she meets and he also falls for her, but he never loses the love he feels for his wife and his child although they have been taken from him. In the present time we feel Laura's need to find out more about her family and to use that knowledge to better understand her own life.

The Sandcastle Girls is a novel about the importance of remembering our history, especially the bad parts. But it is also a book about hope and love and surviving.

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