The Sandcastle Girls
The title is deceptive, as this is no lightweight beach read but a serious novel set against the background of the “Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About,” i.e., the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War 1. Even today only a handful of countries officially acknowledge this event, and many Turks remain in denial that it ever happened.
Author Chris Bohjalian was inspired by his own family history, and he does not spare the reader with descriptions of inhumanity and dispossession as the story weaves between present-day America and the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire.
Through photographs and documents, Laura Petrosian begins to discover the mysterious past of her grandparents. In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott travels with her father from Boston to Aleppo on behalf of the Friends of Armenia to bring relief to the suffering refugees. She experiences much sadness and frustration but finds hope in a better future when she falls in love with Armen, a widower with his own cross to bear.
Sub-plots involve the smuggling-out of Syria of photographic images of refugees taken by sympathetic German soldiers, and protection of a woman and child, Nevart and Hatoun, rescued by Elizabeth from starvation, or worse. Another lesser-known aspect of military history is explored when Armen joins with the ANZAC forces fighting at Gallipoli.
The romance struggles a bit against the overall content, and there is a coincidental encounter towards the end that feels contrived. Readers who prefer linear narrative could be distracted by the jump-cut literary devices, e.g., the past is written in present tense, the present in the past, but it is worth persevering with for the vivid imagery and power of the prose.
This is an important and salient novel that casts new light on a shocking and tragic history.