Thursday, July 26, 2012

Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls

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 simply 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?

Chris was at the Odyssey last night to do a reading and presentation from The Sandcastle Girls, and he's as fine a speaker as any who have passed through this store.  If you missed it, let us know and we can reserve a signed copy for you!


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