The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
In 1915 Elizabeth Endicott, a spirited young American, arrives with her father in Aleppo, Syria, as part of a Boston-based organization whose mission is to aid the struggling survivors of the harrowing Armenian genocide. Amid the throes of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenians are being quietly massacred and, stationed at the American consulate in Aleppo, Elizabeth finds herself a rare witness to the tragic circumstances of a civilization being driven out of its own existence. As Turkish soldiers and gendarmes briefly usher in the barely-living women and children who have survived thus far, Elizabeth and her comrades do their best to administer food and medicine and otherwise preserve the preciously frail lives. During her plight she meets Armen, a young Armenian man spared the swift death so many have suffered by working as an engineer for the Germans. Armen has carried the weight of his share of suffering, however, having lost his wife and daughter to the genocide. As Elizabeth and Armen work to overcome the terrors of the world around them they find a connection neither had expected, and their love grows strong even after they’re driven apart. Despite the unimaginable place she finds herself in, Elizabeth is firm in her hope that she and Armen will find their way back to each other. In 2012, novelist Laura Petrosian finds her world turned upside down when a phone call unravels a series of shocking revelations about her Armenian heritage and brings forth a host of secrets that her beloved, enigmatic grandparents took to their graves. As Laura delves boldly into the history of the Armenian genocide she comes to realize the depth of her ancestors’ plight and the many powerful stories of loss, love, and survival which have been lost in time.
As I turned the final page of Chris Bohjalian's fourteenth novel, The Sandcastle Girls, I wondered in fascination how, as a writer and a devout user of words, my mind had managed to overcloud all language with emotion. I never find myself at a loss for words where books are concerned, but The Sandcastle Girls left me with one tiny (albeit very passionate) reaction: wow. Another one came to mind shortly afterward: stunning. With his efforts, Bohjalian has put forth a novel that in many ways transcends description: there’s simply so much to feel in The Sandcastle Girls that what’s left to say almost pales in comparison. He divides the book between two dialogues: that of 1915, which is a third-person narrative in the present tense, and Laura’s first-person, past-tense account of her journey in present-day New York. The reason I note the use of persons and tenses is purely because I found the artistry with which Bohjalian wielded them to be quite fascinating. The two accounts are not noticeably separated, so the author trusts the reader to discern his pattern and grow comfortable with it – a concept that I found daring, and the execution of which I greatly enjoyed. In the way he crafted The Sandcastle Girls, a reader can easily acquire the feeling that Bohjalian has in many ways broken apart the traditional pillars of the novel and rebuilt them as part of his story.
As for the story itself, I was overwhelmingly absorbed in the plight of the Armenian refugees and their American aids through the account of 1915. Beyond the love story of Armen and Elizabeth, Bohjalian illustrates the lives of several other characters, all equally interesting: from Armenian survivors, a young girl and her unanticipated guardian, to German engineers earnestly trying to make a difference, and the passionately dedicated American consul who hopes that someday the world will understand the degree of tragedy as he has seen it. Laura, Bohjalian’s present-day protagonist, also jumps off the page with a warm combination of humor and sadness as she shares her experience of discovery.
Through The Sandcastle Girls the author guides the reader through scenes that evoke every kind of emotion, from the hopeful happiness of a star-crossed romance to the heartbreaking tragedy of the war and genocide. I was alternately beguiled and disturbed at the turn of a page. At the heart of the novel’s success, I think, is Bohjalian’s ability to at once enchant his readers with a fascinating story and educate them on a part of history too often over-looked. The result is a beautiful journey through the fragility of human life and the immortality of will.