The Sandcastle Girls: book review

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Publisher: Doubleday (July 2012). Fiction. Hardcover. 299 pages. ISBN: 978-385534796.

Does our past influence our future? How much does our ancestry affect who we are today? Certainly the past changes the future but to what extent? How many people know about the Armenian genocide in 1915 where a million and half Armenians where massacred by the Turks because they weren’t Muslim but were Christian? Did it change what happened merely thirty years later to the Jews in the Holocaust or to the Serbs in Yugoslavia or to those in Darfur? Of course stories need to be told and we must remember every atrocity.

Author Chris Bohjalian quite effectively writes about topics such as midwives, domestic abuse, rape, homeopathy, transgender issues and homelessness. One of my favorite novels of Bohjalian’s is about WWI, The Skeleton Feast. In The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian shifts again to historical fiction and painstakingly magnifies a horrific period of bloodshed when the Turks gathered Armenians for mass exodus from Turkey to Syria to die to be executed or left to die in the desert while England and the United States basically looked the other way from what they viewed as a civil war that would resolve itself.

The novel shifts between present day Bronxville, New York and Aleppo, Syria in 1915. In New York, a 44-year-old novelist researches a photograph, taken during the genocide that may or may not be her Armenian relative. For much of her adult life her father’s shared little of his Armenian heritage with her, particularly the stories of her grandparents that maybe she should know. The present day description of Armenian culture? Fantastic. I live in Boston and have lived in Watertown where many [“at least seven thousand”] Armenians live and where the Armenian Library and Museum of America is located.

In Syria, there’s Elizabeth Endicott, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate and volunteer with Boston-based Friends of Armenia. She, along with her doctor father will be delivering aid and comfort to the refugees from the Armenian genocide. She meets two refugees and takes them into her care for the duration of her stay—a young woman and a little girl. With depth and heartfelt clarity, through Nevart and Hatoun, readers can envision this unimaginable atrocity via their distinctive lenses.

Elizabeth also meets Armen, an Armenian engineer who lost his wife and young daughter. Both see unbelievable suffering, cruelty and misery. It strengthens their bond. The pair change and grow through their shared and individual experiences. Motivated both by her desire to help and in a feeling that she’s truly contributing something, Elizabeth stays behind when her father returns to Boston. The wealthy Boston Brahmin and Armen fall in love while writing letters when he leaves to join the British army in Egypt.

This is a bold work of historical fiction with memorable characters, meticulous details and a story with a credible twist. Bohjalian describes bitter circumstances in the orphanages, the camps and in the hospital. Many scenes with vulgar, inhumane soldiers will make you cringe. It’s war. It’s a massacre. It’s not pretty. It’s one of those little talked about secret histories. The Sandcastle Girls is a potent novel that may change your outlook on humanity.

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