Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sand Castle Girls

by Chris Bohjelian, Doubleday, July 2012

...a satisfactory story, the history told is excellent but in the end not the great novel it could have been.

This novel is set in Aleppo Syria in 1915.  It tells the story of the Turkish slaughter of the Armenian population.  At the end of the Ottoman Empire the Turks took the opportunity to “cleanse” their country of Christian Armenians.  The genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians in the middle of the desert between Turkey and Syria is as the author calls it ‘the slaughter you know nothing about’.  This story is narrated in the present time by Laura, granddaughter of the main characters.  Laura, a novelist starts on a journey to know the experiences of her grandparents in Syria in 1915
SPOILERS  Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy independent young Bostonian girl accompanies her father to Aleppo in 1915 to do relief work in the Armenian refugee camps. She lives in the relative safety of the American compound but works with the refugees using her basic nursing skills.  Through the refugees' stories we learn of the horrors of this genocide.  While doing this work she meets Armen, a young engineer who has suffered the loss of his wife and young daughter in the slaughter.  They fall in love.  He leaves Aleppo and joins the British army.  He is involved in the disastrous British defeat in Gallipoli.  There are a number of characters that surround Armen and Elizabeth in this story.  Elizabeth’s father is an arch type New England do gooder, out to help the Armenians but not really know them.  The American consul in Aleppo is a strong character working to help the refugees at risk of life and limb.  Through the characters Navurt a young Armenian women whose husband was killed and Hatoun a small child who watched her family as they were beheaded the author personalizes the slaughter.

This novel did not quite do it for me.  I am usually predisposed to love historical fiction like this.  It is a big story relating historical events that were gripping.   The story did fell short for two reasons.  First there was not tension as to how it would end.  The presence of the main characters granddaughter Laura let you know early that these people survived and ended up in America.  So no suspense there no matter how dangerous things got.  The second shortfall was far more serious.  These characters did not live up to the story.  They were one dimensional and worse still uninteresting.  Elizabeth starts as a strong girl with a mind of her own and never grows from that presentation.  Armen also is hard to know and see growth in.  From his earlier work the author is a master of character development and growth so it is really surprising to me that this weakness exists in this story. Bohjalian has created characters that jump from the pages and grab your heart – see Midwives, Double Blind.  This is certainly a satisfactory story, the history told is excellent but in the end not the great novel it could have been.

I read a copy of this novel that I borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

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