A friend and fellow historical fiction enthusiast handed me the book The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian and told me "this is the best book I’ve ever read; it’s about the Armenian Genocide of 1915." While I always am excited to hear "best book I ever read," I was hesitant about the "genocide" part. I’ve heard various snippets of news about the genocide and how the Turkish government has refused to fully come to terms with this atrocity..but I had delved little into the topic….until I started reading this book. I have to admit, it’s the most difficult novel I have ever read. While it was written with great love and beauty; the haunting narrative, knowing it’s truth, made it hard for me to get through. Bohjalian, who is of Armenian heritage, writes the difficult passages of inhumane treatment, abuse, dehumanization and death, with a great deal of gentleness, humility and humanity.
The story revolves around Elizabeth Endicott, a young woman who travels to Aleppo, Syria with her wealthy father and the Friends of Armenia to offer aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. We witness through Elizabeth’s eyes the horrible mistreatment and deaths of women and children forced on death marches through the desert. Even with haunting narrative of the genocide, this story is ultimately a love story. In Aleppo, Elizabeth meets and falls in love with an Armenian engineer, Armen, who recently lost his wife and young child. Their story unfolds as their granddaughter, an author, is trying to make sense of their time in Syria.
Bohjalian’s gift as a writer is in his ability to write credible, strong female characters. I remember when I was reading his book The Midwives, and I was shocked to learn afterward that he was a man. Elizabeth, even though a character in the early 1900’s, is a woman who doesn’t let the restrictions of her time, culture and upbringing hinder her from being who she is and expressing that through her voice and actions.
April 24, 2015 is the 100th Anniversary of The Armenian Genocide. I think it’s important to honor and remember what happened, and reading Bohjalian’s book, is a good start.