The Armenian genocide during World War I is the subject of Chris Bohjalian’s 14th novel, “The Sandcastle Girls.” Inspired by his grandparents’ background, the author explores the suffering and atrocities of that time with astounding precision, compassion and grace.
“How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing?” ponders Laura Petrosian, the book’s modern-day narrator. The answer, she will discover, is really very simple: “You kill them in the middle of nowhere.”
Laura has embarked on a search to find out more about her Boston Brahmin grandmother and her Armenian grandfather, who met during the slaughter about which she knew very little. “To understand my grandparents, some basics would help,” she says. “Imagine an oversized paperback book with a black-and-yellow cover, The Armenian Genocide for Dummies.” This light-hearted tone is in stunning contrast to the next chapter, which flashes back to 1915 to the horrors taking place in Aleppo, Syria.
Boston magnate Silas Endicott has brought his daughter Elizabeth with him to Aleppo on “a small philanthropic expedition.” Their mission is to deliver food and supplies to survivors. Elizabeth, a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, with a rudimentary knowledge of Armenian, plans “to chronicle what she sees for their organization, the Friends of Armenia.” Having taken a crash course in nursing, she also plans to volunteer at the hospital.
But within minutes of arriving and meeting the American consul, they come upon a “staggering column” of women who are all “completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. . . . 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.” They are being herded through the town by Turkish soldiers before being marched east, supposedly to be placed in “camps,” a word the consul says is a misnomer: “I am told that slaughterhouse is more apt.”
Among these desperate deportees, Elizabeth befriends a woman named Nevart and the young orphan she has saved. “This is Hatoun,” says Nevart. “Like me, she is unkillable.” Having witnessed her own mother’s beheading, Hatoun is virtually mute. Nevart’s generosity toward the child is a poignant reminder of kindness and courage set against the inhuman acts being perpetrated around them.
A few days after arriving in Aleppo, Elizabeth and her father are in a restaurant with the consul, when an Armenian engineer named Armen enters with two German soldiers. “Germany and Turkey are allies,” one of the trio explains, as they all begin talking. But alarmed by what their ally is doing to the Armenians, these Germans are secretly taking photographs, although they know it’s illegal. “It’s espionage. It’s treasonous.” The consul urges them to get the pictures out or give them to him.
“We want to be sure that Americans know how dire the situation here has become,” Elizabeth tells Armen the next day. As their friendship moves quickly toward romance, Elizabeth learns that Armen has lost his wife and baby daughter. “I need to do something,” he tells her. “I can’t be a bystander to all this. I can’t die a sheep.” What he does next will change their lives.
Decades later, when Laura sees an exhibit of archival photographs taken in Aleppo in 1915, she discovers a chilling connection to her grandmother during that trying time. Is it possible that Elizabeth carried some terrible secret with her back to America and into her marriage?
Bohjalian deftly weaves the many threads of this story back and forth from past to present, from abuse to humanity, from devastation to redemption. His ability to add irony and wit makes the contrasting horrors even more intense. And his unblinking descriptions of atrocities are staggering: Nevart “has heard stories of . . . women who were impaled on sharp stakes and swords, the pommel and grip planted into the ground so the blade rose like an exotic but lethal plant.” Rather than repelling the reader, Bohjalian’s account makes the gruesome truth utterly riveting.
April 24, 2015, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Yet in some circles, controversy over the nature of this crime still rages. Just this month, relations between France and Turkey were tested again by President Francois Hollande’s commitment to making it illegal to deny that the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide. Bohjalian’s “The Sandcastle Girls” may be a novel, but, based on his family history, it is a valuable and powerful piece of evidence pointing to the undeniable.
Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and the creator of the Tanglewood Vlog on musicalamerica.com.