Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls: Yet Another Genocide Novel, More Horror, Some Romance (Doubleday, New York, 2012, 299pages) Armenian News Network / Groong February 19, 2013 Reviewed by Christopher Atamian Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls follows in a long and seemingly unending line of novels that purport to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide using some type of fictional background as a framing mechanism. All too often - and this book is no exception - the stories are thinly-veiled excuses for once again retelling the story of 1915, where Armenians are hapless victims and Turks evil murderers. Bohjalian's treatment is no doubt subtler than most - there is a kind Turkish doctor who helps Armenian refugees in Aleppo, for example, but he is a stereotype as well - the token righteous Turk. This type of retelling of history by a third-generation descendant of Genocide survivors does not seem to me the most flattering role for literature or fiction in general, but after Carol Edgarian's Rise The Euphrates, Mark Mustian's The Gendarme and a whole host of other such titles, it seems to have become a firmly established sub-genre in contemporary fiction. To his credit, Chris Bohjalian has at least crafted a well-turned out tale full of unexpected plot turns and surprises. Bohjalian writes the type of mid-level prose that the general public and Hollywood both seem to adore. He also sells a lot of books, and The Sandcastle Girls is no exception. (I should first admit to having been a fan of Midwives (1997) and Trans-Sister Radio (2000), which were both page turners in their own right.) The narrator in The Sandcastle Girls, Laura Petrosian, is a half-WASP, half-Armenian living in the Tri-State area who one day decides to research her family's past. Like apparently every other Armenian-American who writes a memoir or tells their family story, at least one of her relatives has decked out their living room like an Ottoman-style bordello, here known as the Ottoman Annex: and yes, sigh, behind all the nargilis, oriental carpets and lule kebabs, a deep dark secret lingers. The reader asks (or does she?): what could that secret possibly be? With Armenians, it seems to always lead to the same, central defining experience (and no wonder...) Bohjalian has always been clever at playing with gender issues; using a female narrator here works to distance the reader from what he may (mistakenly) assume is the story of Chris Bohjalian's family generations ago - though for some reason I kept seeing the author's face pop up in the back of my head as I read this book. In part using archives available at the Armenian Museum and Library of America in Watertown, Massachusetts, Petrosian pieces together the story of her grandmother - Elizabeth Endicott, the book's central character. Endicott is the type of person who might otherwise annoy: a wealthy but bored Bostonian WASP and recent graduate of Mount Holyoke, a do-gooder who finds herself on a trip with her father and the Friends of Armenia in Aleppo, Syria in the throes of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and later on for a brief period in the desert of Der-es-Zor. It turns out, however, that Endicott is much more than a bored little rich girl on an adventure before returning to the material comforts of New England life. As wave upon wave of dying Armenians converge upon Aleppo, she is at first overwhelmed by the sheer number and wretched condition that the arriving women and few surviving children find themselves in. The men, of course, have almost all been executed or else are off fighting on the Northern front with the Russian army for the survival of the Armenian nation. Endicott is imbued with a remarkable fortitude and a sincere humanitarian impulse - the type of Puritan virtues that are legend in American colonial history. Back home, she has had offers of marriage but she chafes at the idea of living as a typical American housewife and longs for something greater than herself and greater than the fate typically reserved then for even the brightest graduates of Seven Sisters schools. While in Aleppo, Endicott befriends an Armenian woman named Nevart who has somehow miraculously survived deportation across the Syrian desert and has herself taken it upon her person to protect a tiny waif of an orphan named Hatoun, who has become almost mute from the horrors she has witnessed. Endicott bathes these women, applies lotion to their wounds, feeds them as best she can and when she witnesses the most barbaric forms of execution of already half-dead Armenian women by Turkish soldiers, she does what any good Puritan would - she appeals to her inner fortitude and to God for guidance. Within the American compound the Consul Ryan Martin - based on Jesse B. Jackson, the actual American consul at the time - and Endicott's father provide wisdom, comfort and whatever protection they can to Elizabeth and her charges. Into the fray arrives Armen Petrosian, a dashing Armenian who has most probably lost his wife Karine and his young child forever to Turkish depredations. He cannot be sure what has happened to them, but he fears the worst, unless his college friend from Harput Nezimi, now a Turkish general, has interceded and saved them from certain death. (He has not, quite to the contrary.) Of course Endicott and Armen fall head over heels in love, but Armen leaves Aleppo in search of his lost family. At times his adventures across the Arab desert, to Gallipoli and down to Egypt resemble something out of a parody from Sir Lawrence of Arabia, including scenes where he kills an evil Turk by poking his eye out, before jumping off a moving train and befriending Bedouins who do not of course try to kill him but instead admire his spirit, are a bit difficult to swallow. These types of hijinks would be truly risible if Bohjalian were not as gifted a storyteller as he turns out to be. The fate and intertwined lives of all the preceding characters, as unlikely as they may be, form the highlight of The Sandcastle Girls - I certainly do not want to reveal the remaining plot points, but they are at times simply remarkable. So much for the plot. The problems with The Sandcastle Girls are unfortunately difficult to ignore, including its sometimes remarkable bad taste in describing every form of torture and cruelty visited by the Turks upon the admittedly defenseless Armenians. As a reader and as the grandson of Genocide survivors myself, I do not need to be so shamelessly manipulated or shocked into some type of almost gangrenous state of disfeeling every time I read about my people's past. It's a cheap trick, and one that Bohjalian might have avoided. While Bohjalian never approaches the apex of grotesquerie that Jonathan Littell scaled in his French language 2006 Goncourt-winning Holocaust novel `The Kindly Ones' (Les Bienveillantes) there is something unseemly about all the descriptions of decapitations, rapes, fusillades, bastonimentos and other horrors. Here, one of the milder descriptions of Turkish-on-Armenian barbarity: `There was a young man who pretended to be a woman,' his friend adds. `A real Armenian dog. We took a collar off a sheepdog and made him wear it. It was the kind with spikes on the outside. You know, so a wolf can't bite the dog's neck.' `Who was he?' Orhan asks. It's so rare for there to be young men in the convoys. He wonders if the fellow was a priest or a banker or an official so important they had been afraid to kill him before they had set out. `I told you. He was a dog. He was pretending to be a woman. He was married and his wife was there. And their baby.' `Ah, he was trying to protect them,' Orhan says. `No, he was just a dog. A coward,' the gendarme insists. Then he laughs and adds, `We stripped him and made him walk on all fours. He actually tried to keep up for maybe an hour.' `Then?' `When he couldn't keep up any longer, we did what anyone would do to a worthless dog. We took off his collar and shot him.' The other gendarme pulls the cube of white cheese from his sack and studies it for a moment before popping it into his mouth. Then, almost contemplatively, he says, `We did fuck his wife. We all fucked her. That was the only time that he did a really good job as a dog. Howled, I tell you. But usually we didn't fuck the women. Most of them were stinking and dirty and dying by the time we got to them. They all had diarrhea. We were too busy digging graves or burning bodies to fuck anybody.' (p141) There is of course much precedent for Bohjalian's descriptions of rape, depredation and torture going back all the way to 1915 and even before - see Zabel Essayan's Amongst the Ruins (Averakneroon Metch), which is a blistering eye witness account of the aftermath of the 1909 Adana massacres. Almost immediately after the events of 1915 in fact, known more properly in Armenian as the Aghet (Catastrophe) or Medz Yeghern (The Great Calamity), survivors and their descendants as well as foreign witnesses to the events, began to publish - sometimes in lugubrious and mind-numbing detail - accounts of exactly what had transpired. The descriptions are heart-rending, as evil and cold-blooded as any recorded in human history. The most famous and well-regarded of these was for a long time Leon Surmelian's critically well-received 1945, I ask You, Ladies and Gentleman, but for the most part readers have been treated to a veritable litany of literary mediocrity that has done little more but repeat stories so similar that one can simply not read (or write) any more such accounts - or so one would think. Antonia Aslan's 2007 Italian-language La Masseria delle Allodele (Skylark Farm) was several literary notches above the others and was made into a powerful film by the Taviani Brothers. To my mind however, the only author of late to have successfully, even triumphantly negotiated The Catastrophe and its post-catastrophic aftermath is Micheline Aharonian Marcom in her remarkable trilogy, comprised of Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The Daydreaming Boy and Draining the Sea. While these three books also technically fall into the same category, her exquisite mastery of language and luminescent linguistic experimentation make up for what is admittedly a difficult event to render fictionally. Her description at the very beginning of The Daydreaming Boy of young Armenian boys swimming off the corniche in Lebanon, exploding into Mediterranean water and air after having survived what we know they have survived - all rendered stylistically and impressionistically, is simply breathtaking: `We are naked like Adam and the blue wide band now becomes what it is, the long sea rises before us, the notfish become what they too are, so that we see: water; white-capped waves stretched out to infinity; but not salt, warm sad. Clothes stripped and bodies for the sun and sea and we run like the djinn, thousands of boys running into the Mediterranean, saying, we thirst, we thirst and we drink the water and we laugh and gag, a gaggle of orphans loaded onto the boxcars at Eregli and unloaded in the Lebanon at the sea's edge. The water swallows us and we did not see it before and we did not drink it before and though it was awful we will cry because with each gust of salt water swallowed it becomes more and more what it is and not what it could be or what is dreaming was or how after the push round the bend of the mountain aboard the black hot metal beast and the flash through the silent dark tunnel in the selfsame beast high in the mountains it was: blue wide band, then the New Jerusalem, then sea of white fish.' (p3) In terms of Jewish history and the Holocaust, The Diary of Anne Frank has endured in part because stylistically it is a wonderfully simple volume, written by a young girl who is writing down her own daily adventures for no one in particular - she never tries to prove or even infer that the Nazis are evil for example. Her fate is sealed from the beginning we know, and that makes her innocent diary entries all the more affecting. And Elie Wiesel's Night is powerful because the writer himself lived through the Holocaust and the camps - he writes from lived experience. Also problematic in The Sandcastle Girls are the unfortunate (over-) simplifications and casual insertions that occur throughout the book, for Bohjalian takes it upon himself to give the reader a primer on almost every aspect of Armenian culture and history. We find out for example that the narrator is not related to Tigran Petrosian, the great chess master - same last name, but no dice. We also get treated to short disquisitions on everyone from Arshile Gorky to Atom Egoyan to Armenian mercantile geniuses of the past - even Kim Kardashian is thrown in for good measure: at one point, I believe that the narrator points out to one of her children that the Kardashians have after all not done badly for themselves financially in exchange for doing little besides show up at parties. (In this last example, one can only wonder where the narrator's moral compass has suddenly disappeared...) Every aspect of the culture one short the Armenian kitchen sink seemingly makes at least a brief apparition in The Sandcastle Girls, and at times one wonders if one is reading a novel or snippets of random Wikipedia entries. The narrator opens chapter 5 by affirming: `My Armenian grandfather once said: `The Turks treated us like dogs,' (p71) and we are then treated to the story of the Island of Oxia off the Bosphorus where the Turkish government sent literally thousands of stray dogs to die in 1910 - an episode which was recently made into an award-winning short film titled Chienne d'Histoire (2010) by Serge Avedikian. Here is one of the oversimplifications in question, having to do with Laura Petrosian's dual ethnic heritage: `Obviously my ancestors from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts were immigrants too. Even those original Bostonians were fleeing religious persecution. And that, in some ways, is what the Turkish Armenian hostilities were all about. A new regime in a largely Muslim nation decides to try to rid itself of its Christian minority...It was, arguably, the notions of nationalization and modernization - the idea of a homogenous Turkey - that led to the slaughter. But I can't resist finding parallels between my Puritan and my Armenian Ancestors. The big difference? The Bostonians simply came here three centuries before the Armenians.' (pages 25-26) She cannot resist finding parallels, but she really should. If after everything that she discovers about her Armenian ancestors, she can tolerably equate the type of religious persecution that the Puritans experienced in England and what the Armenians underwent during the Ottoman Empire, then she should re-read her own family history. The fate of the Armenians, as the great novelist Hagop Oshagan has written, was sealed long before 1915 and sealed mainly because as a subjugated people, the Armenians had lost all means of finding themselves in any position except as that of a dominated, powerless race. The Catastrophe or Armenian Genocide was the terrible and - dare one say it - almost logical conclusion to this terrible state of affairs. Bohjalian, of course, is more than well-intentioned and will no doubt do much good by instructing a large swathe of the American reading public about the Armenians and a part of their history which more people should certainly be aware of. He has already been trotted out before Congress by Armenian lobbies just as Mark Mustian and others were before him, and that is unfortunate - literature, again, should not be used towards explicitly political ends. Literature should be the opposite - a space for exploration and invention and one where psychology more than anything else is brought to bear. Yet the more attention Bohjalian brings to the topic, perhaps the more people will take the gravity of what happened in 1915 seriously. Neither the American government nor those of Europe have done much in the previous one hundred years to try to force successive Turkish governments to make any type of real amends (not to mention extend a simple apology), and I doubt that much will ever change this from the outside, but if the lobbies want to keep trying, they can be my guest. What remains of The Sandcastle Girls when all has been said and done is actually quite instructive, because Bohjalian's tale proves that fiction can simultaneously exist on different levels, for his book is both maddening for the reasons I have explained beforehand and engaging for the sheer thrill of the story being told, and Bohjalian's ineffable and undeniable ability to tell a good story. Bohjalian also displays some humor in unexpected places - the narrator for example tells us that she lost her virginity while in high school to a Turk named Berk - this must be humor...To my mind it is not during the descriptions of despoilings and murderous savagery or during his primers on Armenian culture that Bohjalian's prose is most effective and touching. Rather it is during the private moments experienced by the novel's protagonists that his most tender and sometimes affecting prose comes to the fore: In the morning Elizabeth stands in the doorway of Armen's bedroom, a shawl draped over her shoulders, and watches him lying flat on his stomach in bed, one bare leg revealed where he must have kicked off the sheet in the night. A ribbon of sunlight through the lats in the shuttered window lands on his thigh like a paint stripe. Last night she had waited until his breathing was even and she was sure he was asleep to climb from under the comforter and return down the corridor to her own bedroom. She hadn't thought about where she would sleep when they had retreated to this particular room ten hours ago; she hadn't thought about that at all. She had been aware only of the feel of his hands on the small of her back and the taste of anise on his lips from the arak the two of them had drunk with Mr. Martin and David and Nevart to celebrate his return. This time he did not stop her and pull away the way he had that morning on the stairs so long ago. Later, when he was moving inside her on the bed, she had giggled. ( p273) In the end, I have to give it up to Chris Bohjalian: the last thirty pages of the novel possess so many twists and turns and that you are left almost breathless. The narrator spends a lot of time in these pages sobbing (too much): Bohjalian's narration and the sheer epic quality of the story are emotion enough without all the pathos. As a reader and critic, I sometimes also felt a slight urge to weep at the dramatic overkill. That being said, there are many touching and memorable scenes in this, Bohjalian' fifteenth novel. If you do not mind the constant stream of melodrama, then The Sandcastle Girls may very well be the book for you. -- Christopher Atamian is a noted translator, writer, and producer/director living in New York City. He produced the OBIE Award-winning play "Trouble in Paradise" in 2006 and was included as an invited artist to the 2009 Venice Biennale for his video "Desire". His short films and videos have screened throughout the world and he publishes regularly in leading publications such as The Huffington Post and The New York Times. He has written one novel, "Speaking French," and translated six books from French and Western Armenian into English, including Nigoghos Sarafian's "The Bois de Vincennes." Christopher has worked in senior-level positions for leading media companies including ABC, Ogilvy Interactive and JP Morgan's marketing division. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School and USC Film School and a former Fulbright, Bronfman and Gulbenkian Scholar. Chris can be reached at email@example.com
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