Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of the best feelings when you’re reading is when the story gains momentum and you just have to keep going until you finish it. This was one of those stories, and I’m so glad. As an Armenian, I had very high expectations of Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls, because it addresses the historical tragedy closest to my heart.

Bohjalian certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to discussing, as he puts it, “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” Although Turkey, the United States, and various other countries refrain from calling the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians a “genocide,” that’s exactly what it was. Between 1915 and 1923, we lost over half of our population, forever impacting future generations.

These multiple generations are all included in The Sandcastle Girls, since the author writes two stories concurrently. Laura Petrosian is writing a novel in the present-day about her grandparents, Armenian engineer Armen Petrosian and Bostonian volunteer Elizabeth Endicott.

In 1915, Armen has escaped the clutches of the Turks, killing men and losing his wife and daughter in the process. He meets Elizabeth in Aleppo, Syria, where her, her father, and other Americans are doing their best to help the survivors. The two quickly fall in love, but when Armen decides to fight in the war, their relationship must withstand great distance and the uncertainty of whether they’ll ever meet again.

Of course, the reader knows that they’re eventually reunited, otherwise Laura would not have been born and able to share her memories of her grandparents. From describing delicious cheese boregs to offering anecdotes of contemporary tension between Armenians and Turks, I appreciated such a devotion to our culture.

Even though my own family escaped the genocide before the death marches began, I related so much to this story. Having Armenian ancestry seems to be essential to our people, whether they’re full-blooded Hyes (Armenians) or part-odars (outsiders). Bohjalian does an excellent job explaining the nuances of our diaspora, and I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to learn more about it.

Obviously, this book won’t be for everybody. If you have a weak constitution, you probably won’t be able to handle the graphic scenes of rape, torture, dismemberment, disease, and death. Before the pace picked up, I would have to read this story in small amounts, just to save myself from becoming too emotionally overwhelmed. As many other readers have pointed out, this is not a beach read, but it’s a read that makes you simply grateful that you’re alive.

Some have called The Sandcastle Girls formulaic and melodramatic, its characters annoying and two-dimensional. Others dislike the flipping back and forth between past and present. I, on the other hand, argue that the book effectively weaves together this family’s lineage, but whether it’s 1915 or 2012, people are not always likeable or relatable. They make mistakes, and this genocide was one of the biggest mistakes in human history.

It’s easy to call this a wartime love story, but I think it’s also disrespectful to narrow it down like that. Bohjalian simultaneously educates his audience with historical research and vividly paints the picture of the desolate desert where  over a million Armenians met their doom. I know that I’m biased, but The Sandcastle Girls is so much bigger than boy-meets-girl, and if you read it, I hope you’ll agree.

I won’t spoil the meaning of the book’s title, but I think that a sandcastle is an apt metaphor for Armenia. We may have been trodded and trampled on in the past, but we were a shining beacon of hope in that desert, and we’ll continue to rebuild. For a race to experience such horror, we have become even more industrious, hard-working, and thankful for each day.

And even if those who wish us ill try to demolish the sandcastle and brush away the sandy remains as if it had never existed, what they’ll fail to erase is our memories. That, to me, is the most powerful weapon of all.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls

  1. This novel resonated with me on a deeply personal level. Although rarely discussed, I first learned about the Armenian Genocide from my European half-Armenian mother whose grandparents had emigrated to the safer haven of Poland around the time of the earlier, less deadly massacre that killed some two hundred thousand Armenians in 1894-1895. She would whisper, as we looked at the precious few pre-WWII family photos, that her grandmother didn’t know exactly how many of her relatives had been killed. Most of a large, educated and prosperous family had been wiped out with no one left to remember their names. Curiously, I am also a direct descendant of several early 17th century New England families that include the Holyoke’s of the namesake college that fictional Elizabeth attended. Like the heroine Laura Petrosian, I was more interested in music, my studies, boyfriends and my suburban American life and left too many questions unasked and forever unanswered with my mother’s sudden death when I was 24. In this work of fiction, Laura is given the tools to make and complete her journey of discovery, a gift seldom available to living descendants of survivors. Chris Bohjalian answers the questions Armenian descendants should ask with a substantial novel that is both a love story for the ages and a compelling history lesson. He is deftly able to give Laura and Elizabeth their voices and to bring all the characters to life as he captures the hearts of his readers. It is on my “must read” list of recommended books of 2012 and likely to remain a favorite.

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