The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian tells the story of the Armenian genocide through the vehicle of one family’s history. Bohjalian is himself the grandson of Armenian survivors, so this story was a way for him to explore a topic of personal significance. However, the book is a work of fiction rather than thinly disguised family history.
The novel is narrated by contemporary Armenian-American novelist Laura Petrosian, who starts to dig into her grandparents’ past after discovering a photograph of a female genocide survivor who had the same last name as hers but who was not, as far as she knows, a relative. Laura learns that a museum has an archive of her grandmother’s papers, and through them, she uncovers a long-buried past with elements of horror, brutality, tragedy, and love.
Switch to 1915. A group of well-intentioned Americans from the group Friends of Armenia travel to Aleppo, Syria, to take food and medical help to Armenian refugees whom the Turks have forced from their homes. Among the American group are Silas Endicott, a wealthy Bostonian, and his headstrong, compassionate daughter Elizabeth. They are shocked by the cruel reality that confronts them on their arrival. Women and children have been marched hundred of miles through a searing desert. Most of them died long before reaching Syria. Those few who make it to Aleppo are subjected to further barbarities there. The book doesn’t shy away from letting the reader know how terrible a crime was inflicted upon the Armenian people, but it doesn’t wallow in gory details just for the sake of sensationalism.
While the Americans are preparing to take humanitarian supplies to a refugee camp out in the desert, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, a young Armenian engineer who was away from home working on the railroad when the deportations from Armenia began. He has heard that his wife and infant daughter are among the dead, but he has been unable to learn the exact circumstances of how they died. He and Elizabeth are drawn to each other immediately, but he cannot remain in Aleppo. He joins the British army, so he can fight the Turks that are trying to wipe out his entire culture. Yet, he and Elizabeth cannot forget their brief relationship, and they write to each other, hoping against all reason that they will see each other again.
In Armen’s absence, Elizabeth deepens her relationship with two other Armenian survivors—a widow and an orphan child who is a voluntary mute because she has seen unspeakable horrors. And as Armen experiences battle, he realizes that the internal forces driving him have changed forever.
These stories from the past are interwoven with chapters recounting Laura’s investigation. And that’s perhaps my biggest issue with the book. I think there are more present episodes than are necessary for the telling of this story. I think Chris Bohjalian, the author, spent too much time on the narrator’s search and discovery of the past because it in some way mirrored his own emotional process. But he may have lost sight of his readers. I began to get impatient with the interruptions. The compelling story is the one in the past. And it’s engrossing enough that I ultimately forgave the times I felt impatient to get back to it.
The other major criticism I had with the story was the use of a flagrantly improbable coincidence in the climax of the past history. Despite that, I still recommend the book strongly. It tells an important story and does so dramatically, not polemically or didactically, but through characters that we truly care about. That’s worth forgiving a few flaws.