This latest novel from Chris Bohjalian is a powerful look at an Armenian family's tragic past and the secrets that surface generations later when a young woman delves into her family's geneology and the path that her grandparents took from Turkey and Syria to the United States. In parallel stories, Bojahlian writes of a young woman in modern day discovering her family's past and the ramifications that it has for her and her present day relationships. He slips back to the early 20th century to tell the full story of the family's traumatic evolution. The reader follows the sheltered life of a young Bostonian woman who accompanies her father to Aleppo in 1915 to bring humanitarian aid to the Armenian peoples who were being systematically filtered from Turkish society and forced into the desert to be slaughtered and starved in a mass ethnic cleansing campaign. Meeting a young Armenian engineer who has been sheltered from death because of his ability to help expand the rail system, she begins a relationship that will take her into the heart of a that dark time in Middle Eastern history - the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
I think it interesting that this is the second book concerning genocide that Bohjalian has written. His searing novel about the last of the Jewish concentration camp internees escaping and trudging their way back toward western Europe during the last grueling days of WWII was chronicled in Skeletons at the Feast . Now, he brings us the Armenian genocide. Dark stories, both, and yet they are important chapters of history that must not be forgotten. Bringing them to life within well-researched novels makes them more accessible to the mainstream and helps readers explore the emotional and human side of the dry statistics and politics of these horrible historical events.
I would place this book in my 2012 top ten, but I must admit that I need to move on to something much lighter, as the emotional catharsis of this novel got to me. Other readers may not find it too searing, but this kind of story, one that explores man's inhumanity to man, just gets under my skin and stays with me for a good while.
At any rate, I recommend The Sandcastle Girls for those who like historical fiction as a way to learn about real events outside of an academic forum. It provides places, dates, and interesting political scenes that a truly interested reader can use as jumping off spots for more research. It's a well-done endeavor by Bohjalian.