Chris Bohjalian is a master storyteller and The Sandcastle Girls lives up to his reputation. It is a profoundly moving story divided between two very strong women as they come to understand the Aremenian genocide – an event that remains largely hidden to this day. Laura, a contemporary American novelist, is Elizabeth’s granddaughter, and as an adult, she has little understanding of the role that Elizabeth played as a member of the 1915 Friends of Armenia’s aid mission, and has even fewer notions as to how profoundly this era shaped her heritage and family. Laura chronicles the events, walking us through her emotional discoveries. Although this is a fictional story that Bohjalian has crafted, it is so believable that readers can’t help but connect with the narrator and empathize with her journey to understand those who came before her.
While Laura narrates the contemporary portions of the novel, the story is truly set in Aleppo, Syria in 1915. Elizabeth Endicott is a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke who is determined to join her father on a mission to help the refugees of the Armenian genocide. Though she is not prepared for what she sees upon arrival – the skeletal frames of Armenian women, the bodies that litter the desert – she quickly grows to love the people and becomes particularly attached to a widow (Nevart), and a young orphan (Hatoun) whom she welcomes to the American compound so that they do not face the fate that awaits them at the refugee camp and orphanage, respectively. While serving those in Aleppo, Elizabeth also meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who was separated from his wife and child, believing them to be dead. With numerous walks and deep conversations, Armen and Elizabeth quickly grow attached, so it is a wrenching decision for Armen to leave Aleppo so that he may join the British army to fight the oppressive Turks. Determined not to lose Armen, Elizabeth begins writing letters which allow their relationship to grow and give them both the confidence to reveal secrets from their past and present fears. The separation allows them to admit to themselves the depth of their connection while also forcing them to come to terms with the realities of a world shaken by war. It is through these letters and Elizabeth’s diary entries that Laura, in fact, comes to understand her grandparents’ role in the Armenian genocide at all, and her emotional awakening as she understands the pain and torment the endured is truly powerful.
Although the book revolves ar0und Elizabeth and Armen and how their relationship impacted Laura, there are numerous sub-plots and enticing characters who make the Armenian genocide more real. Nevart and Hatoun, for example, must face the reality that when the Americans return home, they may be worse off than before. The fates of German soldiers who are caught photographically documenting Armenian refugees and the rebellious Turkish soldier who attempts to aid the American consul all play roles in the story as it unravels.
The Sandcastle Girls is a captivating read and left its mark on me, pushing me to learn more about the Armenian genocide (Bohjalian provides a number of resources for readers wishing to pursue the subject further). The story flows beautifully, and even though the subject may be dark at time, the story is positively inspiring. At times, it is hard to remember that this is a novel and a memoir – it is truly powerful. This may not be a typical summer read, but it is a perfect pick for book clubs because there are so many topics which will lead to lively and engaging discussions.