Bohjalian's 'Sandcastle Girls' a novel of depth, importance

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2012

“The Sandcastle Girls,” by Chris Bohjalian. Doubleday. 2012. 320 pp. $25.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Perhaps it’s the mean-spirited times we live in, this period of anger that made “Sandcastle Girls” so poignant. It tells a haunting story of hatred and genocide, wrapped in a story of enduring love and survival.
Based on the 1915-16 massacre of Armenians by the Turks in World War I, the book was something Bohjalian was driven to write. He is Armenian — as are many whose last names end in -ian, and he has had tremendous support from Armenians throughout the writing process and book tour.
Passion comes through clearly in “Sandcastle Girls,” with Bohjalian’s carefully chosen words, his flesh-and-blood characters and his vivid descriptions. There are scenes of horror, but Bohjalian doesn’t use those scenes as clubs — rather as glimpses of nightmares too awful to be true.
No one is safe from the genocide — not professors, doctors, lawyers, not men, women or even children. The men were simply slaughtered, but the women and children were driven through the desert with no food or water. Many died on the way. Many were raped and murdered — the children, too. A few survived, some haunted for the rest of their lives by horrors, some too haunted to face the rest of their lives.
The novel, though, will leave you caring deeply for the characters and for the Armenians who died two decades before the slaughter of the Jews in the Holocaust.
The book is powerful, excellently written and gripping. Bohjalian has done well with historical fiction, especially his moving story in “Skeletons at the Feast” about the Polish in World War II. He can take a subject that is deeply frightening and make it palatable for readers.
The narrator of the book is an American novelist — a woman — who calls the event “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About,” a sort of glib way to describe it. For most, it’s the slaughter you never heard of, in a part of the world that ceased to exist in 1922. There is no more Armenia. It was swallowed up by the USSR. Aleppo, the site of the massive deaths of Armenian women and children, is again the site of brutal fighting in Syria — death seems to feel at home in that city.
Today, piles of bones are housed in museums dedicated to the Armenian slaughter. Piles of bones, only the thick black hair remaining, marked many sites in the desert where the death marches took place in the years of 1915-16. Bohjalian describes them through the eyes of Helmut, a German engineer pressed into service as a soldier, yet a man who wants to document the genocide: “He stares more closely out the window at a massive pile of tree limbs — a messy pyramid — no more than thirty of forty meters from the tracks. The branches have been bleached white by the sun on one half of the mound, but are blackened on the other side, as if someone started to burn them but the fire never quite spread and eventually burned itself out. He is wondering briefly … when he realizes they are not tree limbs at all and his gaze grows transfixed.
“In the end, it was the skulls that gave it away.”
The narrator’s grandparents, Elizabeth and Armen, are the focus of the story. Elizabeth is a Mount Holyoke graduate with a real desire to do some good in the world. She travels with her father to Aleppo, to try to bring aid to the suffering. They will be joined by a missionary and two doctors. Elizabeth will help in the hospital that houses refugees.
Her father is starchy and traditional, and we see little of him in the book. Armen is another engineer -— an Armenian, whose wife and daughter died in the march across the desert. When he sees Elizabeth, he starts to feel again, inspired by her determination and beauty.
What starts to seem hopeful can’t last long in this city of death. Armen feels a strong need for vengeance, especially when his German friends are sent away and punished for documenting the genocide. He goes to Egypt to fight, to kill for those he loved most and lost.
Elizabeth and the aid entourage make a dangerous trip to the desert camp of Der-el-Zor, to be met with frustration, futility and real danger.
Elizabeth has taken in an Armenian woman whose husband trained in London to be a doctor, and Hatoun, an orphan who watched her mother and sisters as they are beheaded. The widow and the orphan form a strong bond and come to represent the future for the Armenian people, now scattered throughout the globe.
The plot takes many twists and turns, all building back to the present, to the woman novelist in Boston who represents Bohjalian in the book.
“Sandcastle Girls” is hopeless and hopeful, guaranteed to make readers identify with the Armenians, to want to read more about their history. It is moving and sweet at times, brutal at others. It is a story of death and the triumph of life and quite possibly the best thing Bohjalian has written.
You owe it to him and the Armenians to read this book.
For a reading group guide and more background on the book and the history, visit Bohjalian’s website,