Sunday, September 16, 2012


The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: For all that this is a book that centers on a genocide, it's not very compelling.  There are two stories told in parallel, neither of which I found particularly engaging.  The primary story is the one that takes place during the 1915 Armenian genocide.  It's the story of Elizabeth, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate who travels to Aleppo with her father on a mission of humanitarian relief (although in her father's case it seems to have more to do with making sure his money is being responsibly spent).  In Aleppo, Elizabeth meets Armen, an Armenian engineer.  Although Armen presumes that his wife and daughter are dead, victims of the Turkish transportation, he is in Aleppo hoping to find someone who accompanied them across the desert and can tell him what exactly happened to them.  This might have made Armen a tragic and interesting character, except that he more or less abandons his quest the moment he meets Elizabeth.  He is drawn to her because her cheekbones remind him of his wife's, and he falls in love with her almost instantly.  The attraction is mutual, if not entirely believable, and the rest of the story is a foregone conclusion, and would be even if we did not already know the end of their story from their granddaughter.

The second story is told by Laura, Armen and Elizabeth's granddaughter, a writer who knows very little about her Armenian heritage (although, to be fair, she doesn't seem to know that much about her Boston Brahmin heritage either).  She is drawn into researching her history when a friend forwards her a photograph of someone with her last name from an exhibition focusing on the Armenian genocide.  Her story of discovering her grandparent's history is interesting, but lacks emotional heft, although that may be because I found her grandparent's story itself to also lack spark.

Put together, we get two stories, neither of which is adequately fleshed out.  Perhaps if Bohjalian had chosen to tell a single story, there would have been more room to create a more fully-realized world, and fewer characters who are simply shadows (Elizabeth's father, Armen's wife, and so on).  Likewise, if Bohjalian had chosen to tell only the historical story (adding the contemporary story seems like little more than self-indulgence on his part), he might have been able to actually help his readers understand more about the Genocide You Know Nothing About (as he has Laura call it).  Instead, I found myself confused by how Syria figured into the Armenian story, what the Germans were doing there, and what the Turks had against the Armenians in the first place (though I suspect most of the Armenians were asking the same question) and unconvinced both by Armen and Elizabeth's love affair and by Laura's historical quest.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

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