Book Review | ‘The Sandcastle Girls’

The Courier-Journal, CA
April 12 2013

Book Review | ‘The Sandcastle Girls’

Apr. 12, 2013 4:05 PM
Written by Edmund August

Special to The Courier-Journal

The Sandcastle Girls,’ Chris Bohjalian’s 15th book, is a romance
painted against a very unlikely backdrop – the 1915 Armenian genocide,
an ethnic cleansing that took the lives of 1.5 million people. Since
the United States didn’t enter World War I until 1918, very few
Americans knew about the drive of the Ottoman Empire, in particular of
the Turks, to erase Armenians from the face of the earth.

Although Bohjalian admits using memoirs of some of the genocide
survivors, he insists the book is primarily a work of imagination
based on what he repeatedly calls the year of the `Slaughter You Know
Next To Nothing About.’

Bohjalian’s narrator is named Laura Petrosian. Like Bohjalian, she is
of Armenian descent, and she serves as a solid framing device. Laura
is a modern-day novelist searching for information about the genocide,
especially about any links to her Armenian grandmother Elizabeth
Endicott, a graduate of Mount Holyoke who accompanies her father to
Aleppo on a mission of mercy, and her grandfather Armen Petrosian, a
Turkish engineer who becomes an enemy to his own people by opposing
the slaughter of Armenians.

In addition to serving as narrator, Laura seeds herself into the
novel, where her first kiss is with a Turkish boy to whom, a few years
later, she gives up her virginity. Bohjalian is to be commended on his
ability to slip seamlessly from one character into another, especially
moving into the minds of the female characters with no hint of a
masculine hand. One thing near the end of the novel, however, borders
on being too much for coincidence, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Perhaps Bohjalian’s most masterful accomplishment is his control of
the tone, action, dialogue and narrative elements in each of the
scenes of the stories (there are indeed several stories to deal with)
without ruffling the feathers of the reader.

Elizabeth’s first stark realization of the horror of human
annihilation comes in the form of 125 naked, wounded and starved women
being herded and whipped into a square beneath the Aleppo Citadel.
Ryan Martin, a British consul, assures her that over 1,000 women began
this march, most died en route, and all of their men and boys were
butchered before the march began.

In an early scene Elizabeth offers a bowl of soup to a very small
woman with a child sleeping beside her. The woman says `thank you.’
Surprised that she speaks English, Elizabeth asks her name, which is
Nevart, and the child’s name is Hatoun. There is an instant bond
between the women. Elizabeth presumes that Hatoun is Nevart’s
daughter, but soon learns that she was an orphan Nevart had taken
under her wing during the forced march that brought them to Aleppo.

One of the most pivotal characters is also one of the most
short-lived. Helmut, a German soldier/photographer, has taken a box
full of horrific photographs of Armenians being tortured, raped and
murdered. Keeping these hidden until a way can be found to move them
to a place where they can be used to let the United States and free
European counties know about the `Slaughter You Know Next To Nothing
About,’ in hopes they will intercede, would mean instant death for
anyone, regardless of race, religion or nationality.

This book is a masterfully written story of war and love and is
especially meaningful as we approach the centennial observance of the
1915 Armenian genocide.

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