The second of the haunting books in my October series is The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian. This novel is set in two time periods – the narrator lives in current times, and her grandparents met and fell in love during the Armenian Genocide in World War I.
Like all the books in my “haunting” series, it deals with violence and man’s inhumanity to man – in this case, what the Ottoman Empire did to ethnic Armenians during WWI. These themes of violence and inhumanity have eerily resurfaced in 2012 with what is happening currently in the Middle East, most particularly in the violence between Syria and Turkey this month.
Almost daily this year, we have read and seen stories about the destruction of Aleppo during the current Syrian uprising. Aleppo, one of the longest inhabited cities in the world, is where much of the action occurred in The Sandcastle Girls. In The Sandcastle Girls, Aleppo is a haven for the Armenians, to the extent they had any haven in the Middle East of 1915. Today, Aleppo is a war zone.
I’ve known about the Armenian Genocide – what the Armenians call the Medz Yeghern, or Great Crime – since I was a child. But I never knew the scope of the persecution until reading The Sandcastle Girls. The characters in The Sandcastle Girls are representative of the 1.5 million Armenians killed during World War I by the Turks – fully three-quarters of the Armenian people. Yet the characters are also individuals, compelling in their quirks and desires, people we can see as friends and lovers.
SPOILER ALERT – THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN THE SANDCASTLE GIRLS.
At its essence, The Sandcastle Girls is a love story between an American woman, Elizabeth Endicott, a young nurse who has just arrived in Aleppo with her father and other missionaries, and Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer whose family has already been massacred by the Turks.
We see the Armenian refugees through Elizabeth’s naïve American eyes. We see women and orphans barely rescued from death after they were tortured and starved, yet they continue to suffer the horrors of their past – the description of a young girl reliving her mother’s decapitation is heart-rending. We learn how Armen was separated from his family and how his wife and daughter were caught up in a forced death march through the desert.
In the midst of the atrocities inflicted on the Armenian refugees, Elizabeth and Armen fall in love. They are separated during the war, Armen is wounded, then he fights his way back to Elizabeth.
Near the end of the book, we find out that Armen’s first wife is alive, although she had been through unbearable ordeals at the hands of the Turkish soldiers. She learns that Armen is nearby, but witnesses his reunion with Elizabeth and realizes that he has found a new life and love.
So she kills herself. After all this woman had gone through, she sacrifices her last chance at happiness to give her husband his second chance with Elizabeth.
Bohjalian paces the incredible horror of the 1915-1916 events by breaking up that narrative with a modern narrative of Laura, Armen’s and Elizabeth’s granddaughter. Through Laura’s eyes, we see that Armen and Elizabeth did successfully move to the United States and built a happy life after the Genocide. Laura also pursues the mystery of family photographs and uncovers the secret of Armen’s first wife.
After reading the book, I asked myself whether the happiness Armen and Elizabeth achieved could be justified, when it was based on the tragic circumstances of Armen’s first wife’s death. Armen did not know that his wife lived as long as she had, nor that she killed herself on the brink of their reunion. Elizabeth knew, but not in time to prevent the woman from committing suicide . . . and Elizabeth never told Armen. Was she right to keep the secret or not?
So one of the haunting aspects of The Sandcastle Girls was the tragedy of Armen and his first wife, and whether Elizabeth should have told Armen. But the part of the book that haunts me the most is the horror of the Armenian Genocide – terrible events that still impact that region today.
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Last Wednesday, I dealt with epic horror in The Hunger Games – pure fiction in a fictional setting. This week, my haunting book is fiction set in the epic reality of the Armenian Genocide. Next Wednesday, I’ll cover a nonfiction book that haunts because the characters and the setting are both real and are epic in their scope.
And for the last two Wednesdays in October, I’ll move from books that haunt because of their epic scope to horror on a smaller scale in two more novels.