The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
I think at least a decade has passed since I read a Chris Bohjalian title (Midwives remains my favorite). Two shocks came with this, his latest: 1. He’s got 15 books out already; and 2. He’s of Armenian descent (yes, I should have connected that ‘-ian’ in Bohjalian – as a BookDragon Facebook follower pointedly commented – but I have a habit of missing the obvious).
Sandcastle, according to an Armenian Weekly interview with Bohjalian, “may be the most important book I’ve written. It is certainly the most personal.” If you choose the audible route (read by Alison Fraser and Cassandra Campbell), you’ll also hear him say the same in the bonus interview at book’s end; he also “loved” his two narrators’ performances, and adds how his narrators (many of them loyal repeats, including Fraser) “elevate” his work. He’s a big audible book fan, in general, too. See what sort of fabulous tidbits you get stuck in the ears?!
In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott accompanies her father to Aleppo, Syria, fresh from Mt. Holyoke College and eager to participate in the great wide world. Father and daughter arrive from Boston at the behest of the Friends of Armenia, bringing supplies and medical aid to miraculous survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Elizabeth quickly becomes attached to a young widow who desperately mothers a silent girl not her own; both have witnessed the worst of mankind. She falls in love with an Armenian engineer still reeling from the brutal loss of his wife and baby daughter, only to watch him leave.
Almost a hundred years and a continent away, Laura Petrosian is a writer living in an affluent New York suburb. Growing up with an Armenian grandfather, she was aware of “Nineteen-fifteen [as] the year of the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About,” and yet her own distance from “The Great Catastrophe” allows her to glibly remark that such things as “an oversized paperback with a black-and-yellow cover, The Armenian Genocide for Dummies … [o]r, perhaps, an afterschool special” just didn’t exist as teaching tools for the masses.
At 46, she gets a call just before Mother’s Day from her college roommate about “an old picture of your grandmother in The Boston Globe.” Expecting to see Elizabeth Endicott, she finds instead the shocking photograph of an unfamiliar woman who shares her family name. Even as her husband points out that ‘Petrosian’ is “‘a common Armenian surname,'” the haunting photo propels Laura to delve deeper into her family history. What she recovers is a love story she never knew, and a shattering tragedy that determined her very life.
Allow me one last Bohjalian-quote from that audible interview: “relentless.” Bohjalian uses the word in reference to his earlier novel, Skeletons at the Feast, set during the final days of World War II; many of his readers let him know they found the depicted atrocities “relentless.” When he wrote Sandcastles, Bohjalian explains, he purposefully created a dual narrative with a century in between, with Laura’s contemporary search meant, in part, to temper the gruesome events of 1915; not surprisingly, time does little to diminish the degradation, torture, abuse, and murder of 1.5 million people. I offer fair warning: here, too, the word “relentless” looms large. By the final page, the multi-layered epic saga is ultimately eclipsed by the horror, the horror.
Tidbit: Early in Sandcastles, Laura mentions an abandoned, earlier manuscript – “The book was a train wreck” – a failed first attempt at writing about the Genocide, now locked away “in the archives of my alma mater.” On his website’s “Q & A with Chris,” Bohjalian confesses to that 20-year-old manuscript: “It exists only as a rough draft in the underground archives of my alma mater [Amherst College]. It will never be published, even after my death. I spent over two years struggling mightily to complete a draft and I never shared it with my editor. The manuscript should either be buried or burned. I couldn’t bring myself to do either. But neither did I ever want the pages to see the light of day.” Now that the “rough draft” has been immortalized in Sandcastle, we readers will definitely be wondering what mysteries it might hold …