The Sandcastle Girls: witnesses to the unknown slaughter

Chris Bohjalian's new novel looks at the mass murder of Armenians by Turks during the First World War, and its family repercussions in contemporary America.

Armenian orphans waiting to be deported in 1915, when the expulsions and mass murder were in full swing.
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Addressing her readers, Laura Petrosian, one of three narrators of the new novel The Sandcastle Girls, wryly calls the mass murder of Armenians by Turkey in 1915 and 1916 "the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About". Even though she is the granddaughter of a survivor of that slaughter, Laura herself has been raised in the US knowing next to nothing about it. She only begins to research this controversial piece of Middle East history after she stumbles upon a photograph of her grandfather's first wife, an Armenian who died during those horrific times.

The Sandcastle Girls - the 15th book by the bestselling American author Chris Bohjalian, who is himself of Armenian descent - thus aims to be more than a typical historical novel. Certainly, it has the basic elements of the historical genre: romance, drama, anguish, separated lovers, long dresses, family secrets, the sweep of war and a dual past-present narrative structure. But Laura (and presumably Bohjalian) also wants to shake readers' consciences.

Especially as the book goes on and Laura's knowledge expands, the preaching becomes increasingly explicit. The US consul in Aleppo in 1915, Ryan Martin, despairingly tells one character, "The [Armenian] race is dying … The proportions are positively biblical … It's a level of barbarism that is unimaginable outside of literature".

Can a casual holiday-time novel coexist with such a sobering investigation? It's a worthy effort. The Sandcastle Girls is hardly great literature but it succeeds well enough for what it is.

The book is built around the intertwined tales of two generations of the Petrosian family. Chronologically, it starts with Elizabeth Endicott, the daughter of an upper-class banker from Boston, who arrives in Aleppo in 1915, freshly graduated from an exclusive women's college and imbued with philanthropic zeal. She has travelled with her father and a missionary convoy to bring food and medical supplies to Armenian refugees who have been deported across the desert.

In Aleppo, Elizabeth meets and falls in love with Armen Petrosian, a young Armenian engineer whose brother, infant daughter and wife - the wife in the modern-day photo - have been killed or otherwise brutalised by the Turks. However, Armen doesn't stay long in the city. Haunted by the loss of his family, thirsting for revenge against the Turkish friend who betrayed him and feeling like a coward for avoiding battle, he sets off to join the British army in the doomed Gallipoli campaign.

But Armen's and Elizabeth's granddaughter Laura, the contemporary narrator - a novelist, wife and mother living in a wealthy suburb of New York City - knows little of that history or culture, beyond an occasional treat of dried Armenian basturma meat and a few ornamental shisha pipes scattered around her grandparents' house. She doesn't even know that Armen was married once before.

Nor do her grandparents seem particularly interested in passing down any ancestral customs. "They kept their distance from many other Armenians with whom they might have been friends," Laura recalls, "and they seemed to give the Armenian Church a particularly wide berth."

Laura's father - their son - marries a non-Armenian, as does Laura. She even dates a boy of Turkish ancestry for a while. The Petrosian family is a sterling example of the clichéd American melting pot.

The photo of Armen's mysterious first wife, in an article in The Boston Globe newspaper about a new museum exhibit, finally stirs Laura's curiosity. When she goes to see the exhibit, the curator shows her a cache of letters and diaries from her grandparents - papers that tell the story in the other part of this novel.

Not surprisingly, the century-old story is far more compelling than the contemporary one. After all, the life-and-death stakes are higher. Armen hides from Turkish soldiers, nearly starves in the desert and leaps on to a moving train in his effort to reach the British army. The Endicotts and their caravan of supplies are robbed at gunpoint. Two German soldiers risk a court martial for treason every time they surreptitiously photograph some of the Armenian refugees.

Even if Armen can safely make his way back to Aleppo, Elizabeth will have to overcome her father's class and ethnic prejudice in order to marry him. She has already annoyed her father by spurning a marriage proposal from a proper young Boston banker and now a physician in their aid convoy is obviously hoping to fill that spot.

Most important, though, is the historical backstory of the Turkish massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians. There are atrocities of more sorts than most readers could probably imagine. The descriptions spare no senses or sensitivities. On their first day in Aleppo, the Endicotts are greeted by "a staggering column of old women" being herded through the town square by Turkish soldiers. "Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous. The women look like dying wild animals as they lurch forward." And that is one of the mildest examples.

Of course, this is fiction. But it is based on historical research. In the acknowledgements, the author cites about one dozen books and major articles that he consulted, as well as academics, librarians and other experts. Even allowing for some exaggeration and poetic licence, the pile-up of brutality is so overwhelming that it is hard not to call it by that fraught term, genocide - "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group", as defined by the UN Convention on Genocide.

There are chilling foretastes, too, of the looming, far more infamous genocide - the Nazis' attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe. At one point, scores of Armenians are wedged into railway freight carriages, where they "would stand for hours like cattle, unable to move or raise their arms". Twenty-five years later, Jews would be forced into similarly inhumane cattle cars.

Bohjalian makes an effort to be even-handed, giving intelligent Turks and their German allies a couple of opportunities to state their case. "These people are in a brutal struggle with the Russians," one German officer explains of the Turks. "And the Armenians are doing all that they possibly can to undermine their own nation's efforts." Moreover, the cast includes a few sympathetic Turks and Germans who are troubled by the atrocities, such as the Turkish doctor treating Armenian victims in the Aleppo hospital. "He is convinced that a righteous God is going to make the Turks pay for what they are doing. 'Allah dwells in all men, even the infidel,' he says."

The modern-day plot also offers a few multicultural complexities. For instance, soon after Laura starts dating her Turkish-American boyfriend, Berk, her father asks her, "So Berk. Your new friend. Have you wondered how his grandparents and yours would have got along?" Laura's twin brother provides the answer: "Berk's family would have either killed Grandpa or hidden him. But probably killed him."

Judged purely on its literary merits, The Sandcastle Girls handles its complex structure deftly, but it falls flat on character development, particularly with the 1915 characters, who are pretty much all noble or all mean. The writing is functional, rolling along so easily as to be unremarkable for most of the book and turning vivid in the battle scenes in Gallipoli. Bohjalian deserves credit for taking on the voices of not just one, but two female narrators, Laura and Elizabeth. However, Laura's voice doesn't fit the novel's hybrid personality. While her ironically self-aware tone is certainly a common one in modern literature, and enjoyable in the right circumstances, it is utterly incompatible with the horrors she is describing. The sandcastle motif also seems forced, with examples of castle-building occasionally wedged into the plot mainly, it would seem, to buttress the title. Still, such literary criticism is really secondary. Laura and Bohjalian are right: this is a slaughter that readers ought to know more about.

The reason for teaching and reteaching this message is not to enable the US or France to pass resolutions condemning Armenian genocide (as those governments periodically consider), thereby enraging Turkey. On the contrary, the world has too many diplomatic kerfuffles as it is. But each generation needs to be reminded of the inhumanity of which our ancestors were capable - and not all that long ago - in the hope that someday, perhaps, future generations will stop repeating it. Poetic licence or not, fiction can often get that message across better than dry history texts.

Fran Hawthorne is an award- winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.