Published by Doubleday
Publication date: July 17th 2012
It was as I was nearing the finish of Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Sandcastle Girls, that I was struck by how insulated and sheltered we are in the United States. I say that with a full understanding of recent events and their horrors. What I mean, is that at no time in any of our lives have we had to worry that our country or even our state or city was going to be taken away from us and that we were going to be eradicated. It is simply not in our mental framework to understand that level of terror. And yet, in the 20th century there have been several widely known genocides in the world that included death and mass displacement of entire countries of people from their homeland. The most famous is the Holocaust but there is also Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. What is less known but no less horrific is the genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 when the Turkish government began its systematic extermination of the Armenian minority living within their borders. The lack of information and even acknowledgement of this genocide has led it to be called by Armenians the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About and it is the subject of Bohjalian’s novel.
On September 16, 1916, Talat Pasha, minister of the interior, issued the following order: To the Government of Aleppo. It was first communicated to you that the Government, by order of Jemiet, had decided to destroy completely all the Armenians living in Turkey…An end must be put to their existence, however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex nor to conscious scruples.
In a similar vein to his book, Skeletons at the Feast: A Novel, Bohjalian takes times that are beyond imagining in their horror and weaves them with the best of human emotions like love, perseverance, and compassion. The Sandcastle Girls is set in Aleppo, Syria where a young American girl has arrived with her father to deliver aid to the Armenian women who are arriving in the town in droves after having been forcibly driven across the desert without food and water and having undergone extreme abuses. They arrive naked, beaten, skeletal, and broken. There are no men as they were executed outright back in Turkey. Elizabeth Endicott is there to deliver aid and, at a time most women led sheltered lives, she witnesses the end result of barbaric cruelty.
Bohjalian’s cast covers a wide expanse—a Turkish doctor; two German soldiers, who despite being allies with the Turks take photographs of the women in the hopes that someday the world will see what is being done, an American diplomat caught between his duties and his caring nature, and an Armenian man who is only alive because he is working with the Germans as an engineer for the railroads. Both his wife and year-old daughter perished on the march.
At the same time that Elizabeth embarks on her journey in Aleppo in 1915 her granddaughter, Laura Petrosian, begins her own journey from suburban New York into the family’s past. Her story is in the first person while everyone else is in the third. This plus the movement between time and place makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Bohjalian is an intelligent writer and expects his readers to follow suit especially when reading something of such depth. The Sandcastle Girls is not light reading and by moving amongst characters and periods within the same chapter the reader gets some sense of the dislocation and confusion felt by these people. For some this may be a stumbling point, but Bohjalian imbues each character with such definite personality that there is no mistaking where the story has gone. Ultimately, this is a poignant and moving novel presenting both a global picture of human barbarity and compassion and at the individual level, the enormous consequences of the smallest actions. It is Bohjalian’s best work and will stay with the reader for days after finishing.