Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book 73: The Sandcastle Girls

As much as I've read about the Holocaust, I have never actually done much research on the Armenian Genocide.  I knew it happened under Turkish rule during World War I and that over a million Armenians died but I would not have been able to tell you the political motivations behind this or how they went about it.  Naturally, I was very happy to see that Bohjalian, an author I quite enjoy, had decided to tackle that subject.  However, since I felt his last novel before this (The Night Strangers) was a bit lackluster compared to his other works, I held off and waited for the paperback version to come out, and I'm glad I waited.  This was a perfectly good book, but I wanted more.  Bohjalian's Holocaust novel Skeletons at the Feast was incredible - it was moving, heartbreaking, it focused on a slightly different topic from other World War II novels, and was just a fantastic read.  I hoped he would bring that same type of writing to this novel, especially considering that he mentions his own Armenian heritage in the acknowledgments.
Unfortunately, this was not the case.  The novel was good, but it wasn't anything spectacular.  Perhaps I expected too much of Bohjalian since I wanted to be educated and drawn into the story.  In the case of authors writing about the Holocaust, it is easier to get straight to the story, and the individuals in the novel because they can assume that everyone has a basic background of the history.  Therefore, the approach Bohjalian used in this novel may very well have worked in a Holocaust novel because I would have been filling in the blanks on my own.
The novel centers on Elizabeth Endicott, a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke, who visits Turkey with her father on a relief mission, and Armen, a young Armenian engineer that has been affected by the genocide and policies.  Interspersed with their story are pages from their granddaughter Lauren's perspective, and her gradual interest in her family history.  Unlike some readers, I didn't mind Lauren's additions because she provided a way to add extra historical detail to a personal narrative though I think she could have been used more effectively.  As I discovered with Elizabeth, the US actually was somewhat aware of what was going on in this area at this time given that many communities had collected funds for the relief of Armenians and it was in the name of one of these relief funds that her father and she visit Aleppo (in present day Syria).  As a result, the novel deals with some of the atrocities but is mostly told through the eyes of white, American volunteers.  Some other characters play roles as well, such as one of the women that was marched in on Elizabeth's first day in Aleppo, showing a bit of the Armenian perspective.  Through her and Armen, the reader sees some of the brutality firsthand, but mostly the novel deals with Elizabeth's reactions, and the aftermath that she sees.  While Armen has lost his family, he personally has also avoided some of the worst due to his status as an engineer and still having some value to the regime.
While I liked Elizabeth, and the portrayal of her as a rather independent woman for her time who went against many conventions, I would much rather have been reading the stories of Armenian women and their survival.  While some of those stories were in the novel, the main character was the outsider American, and I would have liked it much more if it had been the reverse.  However, this isn't necessarily a fault of Bohjalian as much as it is due to the lack of Armenian genocide literature I've read (or even come across) - if I'd already read other novels or actual nonfiction books on this topic, this novel would have probably been an interesting new perspective, showing how ineffective American aide was, and also showing that certain countries couldn't speak out against the atrocities due to their positions in World War I until finally the horror of WWI itself overshadowed whatever concern or outrage people may have had about this.  Unfortunately, given my lack of knowledge on the subject, and possibly the lack of materials on the subject, I don't feel like this was as good as it could have been.  Bohjalian even mentions that the one hundred year anniversary of this genocide is coming up, and as a result, I think the focus should have been shifted from Elizabeth to the actual Armenians.  Still, the novel had some good parts, and at least some of the references he mentions in his acknowledgments may be worth checking out to get what is I think I really wanted from this read.

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