It happened in Aleppo…
Sometimes you read a book that leaves you intensely sad – it could be because of the story, like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief or because it is not only the tale but also the history surrounding the tale. Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying in any way that the events of World War II were not tragic or traumatizing; but to me when I read The Book Thief, what stood out was the profound sadness for the character of Liesel Meminger , especially with the death of Hans Hubermann and Rudy Steiner. On the other hand, for this book not only was there a profound sadness for the character, but for the history as well – for the sheer number of sense less killing and destruction and for the sense of lost identity and rootlessness!
I am getting ahead of myself as usual, so let me start where I should start – I am talking about Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls.
I had stumbled across this book when randomly surfing through the Kindle Store and the fact that it was set in World War I was enough to get me interested. However, what made me go for it was the brief note in the synopsis about the Armenian Genocide. I had first read about Armenian Genocide, very briefly in William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountains, where he dedicates a couple of pages to interviewing a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Couple of years later, while studying at the University for a Master’s degree, my professor of Israeli politics, once mentioned, that the only genocide that could bear any remote comparison to the Jewish Holocaust was the Armenian one. While I did contest with him then and still contest now, that the Rwandan and Bosnia-Herzegovina massacres were quite brutal as well, my curiosity was had begun lurking from then. Therefore when The Sandcastle Girls turned up as a recommended read for me in the Kindle Store, I was not going to pass this up!
Now for the book –
I started reading this book way back in October and since it is hardly a mammoth of epic proportions, merely 300 pages, it should not take me so long…right? Wrong. Sometimes the themes and the word pictures leave you so emotionally challenged that you need to take a break ; that’s exactly what happened; I read the first half in October and finished the remaining today! So let me state at the onset, it is an intense book and as a reader you will feel the emotional upheavals that will impact you and should you be of the more sensitive variety, it may take a toll on you.
The story begins with the landing of Elizabeth Endicott, the 21 year old daughter of a Boston Brahmin banker father on a missionary task to help the expelled Armenians who have survived the death march across the desert to Aleppo. Most of these survivors are women and children who arrive in utter destitution and trauma. It is also here that Elizabeth meets the Armenian engineer Armen Petrosian, who is trying find out the details about the death of his wife and infant daughter during the death march. The story is told through the eyes of their granddaughter Laura Petrosian, who is attempting to piece together the history of her grandparents and in a sense discover the very history of her own people.
The book is told in simple language and moves fluidly between past and present. The story telling is gripping and at times will actually leave you breathless with your heart in your mouth. The characters are wonderfully drawn. In Elizabeth Endicott, you find an extremely believable heroine who is good, strong, may be a little headstrong and generous to the core. Laura Petrosian is a worthy literary granddaughter – strong, brave and may a little bit stubborn. Though she does most of the story telling for her grandparent’s lives and very little of her own life comes out directly, there is no denying that in her we see a second-third generation settler who does not quite understand the past, until she reaches the very deep end of the family history! This is where I belive lies the master stroke of Chris Bohjalian; to say a lot by saying very little! Armen Petrosian was and is a difficult character to write; a man who has lost all can be all doom and gloom, but in Armen Petrosian, there is a sense of strength, purpose and understandably guilt. What was brilliantly done and here I am giving spoiler alert so please skip the remaining paragraph if you plan to read the book – though he is man who kills, there is no bawdy masochistic tones in those descriptions, something many great authors also seem to be prone to. There are hardly any stereotypes and Germans and Turks could be as kind and as cruel as any other race. All kinds of courage is displayed here – courage to survive, courage to face the most daunting fears and the quiet courage that works in the background to make everyday possible.
Most importantly the book is about some vivid word pictures that Chris Bohjalian – whether describing the horror of the death marches (these are very very intense and disturbing to read) or the sense of rootlessness to a sense of legacy that Laura finds herself being joined to. As a grandchild of émigrés who fled their homeland due to religious persecution that resulted in one of the worst communal violence ever in history, I could very closely relate to Laura’s confusion about her grandparents life and their sadness as well as her own legacy. I remember various such incidents while growing up when on a happy family gathering occasions, everything would suddenly turn silent as my grandmother or my elder aunts looked back at their past and wondered, what if we had not left? How would that person be now? How does that land look now? That senses of identity that flows from belonging to a piece of land you call your home, which when suddenly and violently taken away, is bound to create an irreplaceable sense of loss!