As Chris Bohjalian tells it, the years between 1915 and 1923 were “the most nightmarish eight years of Armenian history.” Yet the horrific events of that time are generally not included in history courses, and are not so well known outside the Armenian community. No longer. Bohjalian describes what happened to the Armenians in grisly detail in this compelling novel. Deftly mixing fact and fiction, he tells the story of the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians through a tale that spans generations and continents, its characters linked together by a series of photographs.
The plot concerns a family secret, and as the secret unravels, it sheds light on the genocide, which began in April 1915 when the Ottoman Turks decided to exterminate their Armenian neighbors. Writers, physicians, professors, businessmen, scientists, religious leaders—all were arrested, jailed, deported, or killed. Armenians (who have been Christians for nearly two millennia) were ordered to convert to Islam, and ordinary citizens, including women and children, were taken from their homes and marched—often naked—into the desert where they were raped, gathered in deportation camps, and starved. Some were tied to trees and shot; mothers watched as their sons and daughters were murdered, and vice versa.
Focusing on the years 1915-16, Bohjalian relates his story primarily through the eyes of Laura Petrosian and her grandparents, Armen and Elizabeth. Other characters offer perspectives as well, including a Turkish physician who tries to save wounded Armenians, a no-nonsense German nun who runs an orphanage for Armenian children, an Armenian woman whose physician husband has been murdered, and an 8-year-old girl who has witnessed the decapitation of her mother and sister. Two German soldiers, anxious to document the massacre, illegally photograph the carnage around them.
But the death and destruction are balanced by the love between the two protagonists. Armen Petrosian is a displaced Armenian whose wife and infant daughter have been lost and are presumed dead. Elizabeth Endicott is a young American who, with her father, has come to Aleppo, Syria, where they will stay at the American consulate and help displaced survivors. A recent Mount Holyoke graduate, Elizabeth hails from an upper-middle-class Boston family and has led a sheltered life. She comes to Aleppo prepared only by a brief course in Armenian language and an equally brief course in nursing.
Armen and Elizabeth are attracted to one another early on, but are soon separated. He travels to Egypt, where he enlists in the fight against the Turks; she stays behind in Aleppo to volunteer in a hospital. They begin to correspond, and most of the story occurs as Armen and Elizabeth separately experience the horrors of the genocide.
Years later—after the two had gone to America, married, had children and grandchildren, and died—their granddaughter Laura, a novelist who specializes in light fiction, finds their letters and sees their photographs in a museum. Inspired by her forebears’ courage, and believing that the story of the massacres needs to be told, she decides to write and publish the family saga. This is the novel Bohjalian has written. The fictional Laura provides context and unity to what could easily be an unwieldy story, but also serves as a stand-in for Bohjalian himself, a grandchild of Armenian immigrants who uses family memories as well as photographs and historical documents to tell the story.
Bohjalian’s evocative language enhances the illusion of reality. In one passage, Armen remembers walking with Elizabeth to the bazaar: “[T]hey were so close that he had been able to inhale the rose-scented powder she had sprinkled on her skin beneath her clothes. Once, when she smiled, words had failed him completely.” And while the reappearance of one minor character seems somewhat contrived, Bohjalian’s exquisite prose more than makes up for any flaws. He weaves the story like threads in a rug, each thread adding color and shadow to a scene. Each scene builds into a larger picture, and each picture adds texture to the numerous story lines. Indeed, so filled is it with the suspense of life—and death—that The Sandcastle Girls is difficult to categorize. The story is fiction, but is true. It’s history, but it’s also art.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University and is the author, most recently, of Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.