Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 19th 2016
Orhan runs a successful rug making factory in Istanbul. The company was started by his grandfather, Kemal, long before he was born. When his grandfather dies and the will is read, the company is left to Orhan, not his father, and even more surprisingly, the family home is left to a woman they’ve never heard of or know. This is Aline Ohanesian’s potent new novel, Orhan’s Inheritance. In it Orhan has to battle for the company against his estranged father who has never been interested in it and to find this mystery woman and persuade her to let their family keep the home that has been theirs for generations. In order to find answers, he travels to the United States and finds the woman named Seda, who has no wish to relive the past or to talk at all.
There is no way to answer this question. To tell him that all the words in the world have betrayed her and she in turn has turned her back on them is impossible. She wants to tell him that though she cannot control her own actions or the actions of others, she has complete control of the little piece of flesh that lies dormant, housed in her mouth full of teeth.
Split between the 1990 and 1915 Orhan’s Inheritance is a novel that encompasses not only the upheaval of war and the atrocities that can hide in that chaos, but also what the lies can do. In part it is the story of Kemal and Seda and of a time in Turkey when the fact of Seda’s being Armenian and not Muslim meant their friendship had to be a secret and going beyond that was an impossibility. Ohanesian uses her prose forcefully to depict the terror that was inflicted on the Armenians when the Turks decided to drive them out of Turkey. We are dragged into brutality that is difficult to read, in a time and place most of us know little about. Until I read Chris Bohjalian’s heart-rending novel The Sandcastle Girls, a historical novel about the Armenian genocide, I had no idea such a thing had ever happened. The only time the term genocide was used in my education was regarding the Holocaust and yet, decades earlier a different ethnic group had been persecuted in, if possible, an even more barbaric way. No pretense of internment, camps or labor, people simply driven from their homes, the males killed, the women and children marched for weeks into the desert, without food or water, killing, raping and torturing anyone who put up resistance. Horrifying enough, but through Orhan’s eyes in 1990 we see that this history has been masked, for as a Turk he has no idea how many Armenians were killed and believes that their deaths were just collateral from World War I.
The plot in Orhan’s Inheritance is one that will keep the reader ensnared, but it is the story’s relevance to modern events that struck me most—the paranoia of the Turks that the Armenian population was so to be feared that they must be driven out of their country and the willingness of people to look the other way as inflammatory speech turned into inflammatory actions and ultimately, atrocities. When Orhan learns Seda’s story it is the hammer tap that shatters the glass of his family’s history. Despite these graphic and painful elements Orhan’s Inheritance is a poignant and multi-layered work of fiction. Ohanesian filters the larger themes of the savagery of intolerance and war down to the smaller scale of human emotions—love, guilt, grief, and compassion and while the story of Kemal and Seda’s lives is a mournful one, it is also one of redemption.