by Chris Bohjalian
Genres: Historical Fiction
Purchase*: Amazon *affiliate
In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, he brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria, in 1915 and Bronxville, New York, in 2012—a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author’s Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
“How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? — You kill them in the middle of nowhere.” –Chris Bohjalian, The Sandcastle Girls
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is one of the most beautiful and touching novels that I have ever had the pleasure to read. I just finished reading this and I sit her with puffy eyes and a heavy heart. This was both an epic family love story and a look at one of the most atrocious genocides in history. I am referring to the Armenian genocide that occurred between 1914 and 1917. I was amazed that this wasn’t taught during world history. Sadly my meager knowledge of the terror that reined in the desert of Der-el-Zor comes from an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles. Bohjalian beautifully brings this story to life, painting a tale and characters that will forever be etched in my heart.
Inspired by his own family history Bohjalian brings this tale to life through the fictional character Laura Petrosian. She lives in present day America and is seeking information about her Armenian heritage and her late grandparents. Through her, Bohjalian takes us on a journey to Aleppo, Syria in the year 1915. American, Elizabeth Endicott, has just arrived with her father. They have come to assist the Armenian League of America. Thousands of refugees are pouring into Syria to escape the terror. Some are marched in by Turkish soldiers. Mostly woman and children; they are emancipated, naked and burned from the blazing sun. Here Elizabeth, her father and others work to save as many lives as they can. It is also here that Elizabeth will meet Armen. He is an Armenian who survived the onslaught in Van. His wife wife and daughter are believed to be dead. He is an engineer and is in Aleppo with soldiers working on railroads. The tale that unfolds transports us back and forth as Laura shares the story of what occurred in Aleppo and the grandparents she knew in America. Bohjalian weaves a tale that both opens your eyes to the tragedy the occurred and has you falling in love with the characters he has created. I literally consumed this novel as the tale swept me up. It is one, I will talk about, recommend, and remember forever.
The characters while fictional could just as easily have been real as Bohjalian weaves them through this time in history. I liked the narrator Laura. She was honest and feisty and brought such an air of authenticity to this story. She is someone I would like to share a cup of coffee with. Elizabeth while educated, caring and capable..is something of a wild child. I adored her and the way she stepped in to help. Armen’s story is touching and I was amazed at how he kept it together. Events revealed to us, shape the man he becomes and the grandfather Laura will come to admire. We met other characters in Aleppo that touched my heart. One in particular a nine year old girl named Hatoun. She survived the desert with the help of Nevert, but not before witnessing the horrific murder of her mother and sister. Karin’s story moved me to unspeakable tears. We meet allies and brave people who helped to get the story out.
Bohjalian’s world building was spectacular and eerily surreal. Already a proven artist, it is evident that he poured his heart and soul into these pages. He brings this dark, ominous, evil time in history to life all while shining a light on the good of those who tried to aid the Armenian’s plight. His characters have such depth that I find it hard to believe they didn’t exist. He painstakingly portrayed these horrific atrocities against human life. Even in the darkest corners of my mind I cannot fathom how any human could commit such acts. Please understand that while the events occurring in this novel are dark, the author also brings light and joy into the tale. Through his characters, I laughed, giggled and experienced moments of true joy. The romance that spanned a lifetime was beautiful, bittersweet and left me feeling warm and fuzzy.
I highly recommend this thought provoking saga to fans of historical fiction. Anyone who wants to learn more about what historians and politicians covered up for the sake of allies and diplomatic ties should read The Sandcastle Girls. Bohjalian is forever on my auto-buy list and I look forward to his next endeavor. Bravo and well done Chris!