Book: ‘Bone Ash Sky’: Unravelling the complex thread of love and con

Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
June 29, 2013 Saturday
First Edition

Unravelling the complex thread of love and conflict
Fiction

Review by Claire Scobie

BONE ASH SKY
Katerina Cosgrove
Hardie Grant
400pp

At the start of Bone Ash Sky, Katerina Cosgrove writes, “The author
does not seek to blame, defame or offend any race … There are no
villains in this story – and no heroes either.” What follows is an
unravelling of four generations of war in the Middle East told through
the multifaceted lens of one family.

The book starts in 1995 with Anoush Pakradounian, who is returning to
Beirut to try to find out the truth about her late father, Selim. Of
Christian Armenian descent, Anoush left the city aged 16, at the
height of the civil war, and was brought up in Boston. Now an aspiring
journalist, she is back to attend a United Nations tribunal accusing
her father, formerly a commander of the Christian Phalangist militia,
of taking part in a massacre of Palestinian Muslims. While Anoush is
singlehandedly trying to right the wrongs of the past, she can never
get away from her own “secret war, lodged deep inside”, that of a
daughter wanting to love her absent father and yet condemn him for his
actions.

As the narrative zigzags back and forth between characters, countries
– Lebanon, Turkey and Syria – and times, the author takes us deep into
the Christian-Muslim conflict that ravages the region. Parallel to
Anoush’s journey is the story of her Armenian Christian grandmother,
Lilit, and Lilit’s brother, Minas, both of whom were forced from their
homes in eastern Turkey in 1915 during the Armenian genocide. The
scenes of massacres, forced marches and Minas’ escape from the death
camp in Deir ez Zor are harrowing.

Every war crime known to man or woman happens in this book. It is a
litany of sadness and trauma, yet within this are the humane details
of ordinary life and love. Some of the most poignant sections are in
Beirut – almost a character in itself. At one point, Cosgrove writes:
“The Israelis are still squeezing the south like an orange, with
Hezbollah fighting them for pips.” Despite everything, Beirut never
loses its soul.

In this novel, in which each character is haunted by the past,
Cosgrove shows how everybody is “a victim or a perpetrator. Or both at
the same time.” We meet the swaggering Selim, Anoush’s father and
Minas’ son, who in the early 1980s is carving a place for himself in
the Phalange headquarters in Beirut. By day Selim schmoozes with
Israeli commanders; by night he crosses to the west of the city to
sleep with his Muslim mistress, Sanaya, whose defiance in the face of
daily airstrikes only adds to her fading beauty.

And Cosgrove, the Australian author of The Glass Heart and Intimate
Distance, doesn’t stop there. There is Issa, a young passionate Shiite
Muslim, and Chaim, a disaffected Israeli, who becomes Anoush’s
partner.

Cosgrove writes poetically about brutality. Her sentences are sparse
and her imagery fierce: “Skeleton bones, shreds of yellow skin,
reddish in places.”

Her attempt to cover all sides of the spectrum, the depth of the
research and fearlessness in writing about subjects such as the 1915
Armenian genocide – still denied by Turkish scholars – is truly
commendable.

However, it is a brave author who switches between first and
third-person point of view with such a cast of characters. The regular
unspooling of the past can intrude upon the narrative; at times the
plot is unwieldy and the prose repetitious. Although Anoush, written
in the present tense and first-person voice, appears to be the main
character, I found her the hardest to engage with. In comparison, the
young Lilit, sold as a slave to a Turk, and the tormented Minas,
shimmer off the page.

As the novel builds to a climax, and the disparate family ties
stretching from past to present are woven together, Cosgrove’s own
agenda becomes more forthright. This can detract from the final
chapters, but ultimately I was left with a sense that this powerful
story is a timely and impassioned plea for a better world, where
cross-cultural and inter-religious divide no longer exists. I can only
hope that is so.

Claire Scobie’s novel will be published in July by Penguin.

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