Review: The Sandcastle Girls

Get your Kleenex box ready as you learn about “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”– a dark time in world history told in the brilliant way that only Chris Bohjalian can. Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for the opportunity to read this advanced copy!

Laura is a modern-day Chick Lit writer of Armenian decent who is inspired to write a more serious novel after seeing a photo exhibition concerning the 1915 genocide of the Armenian race at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The emaciated woman in the photograph shares her last name– could she be a relative? Laura begins delving into the history of her grandparents– Armen, an Armenian refuge, and Elizabeth, a Bostonian girl who served as a missionary for Armenian refugees in Syria during WWI. Her journey to discover the identity of the mysterious woman is bound to bring up memories of a time that her grandparents only want to forget.

How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? You kill them in the middle of nowhere.

For Armen and Elizabeth it is love at first sight and they meet in the worst possible situation. It is 1915 in the town of Aleppo, Syria where 22-year-old Elizabeth Endicott has arrived with her father to tend to the Armenian refuges as part of a missionary group. The condition of the Armenian women and children is HORRIFYING and the presence of Armenian men is virtually non-existent. Armen has narrowly escaped the genocide by pure luck– he had been fighting the enemy outside of his hometown when it was invaded. When he returns home he finds the Armenian population GONE– either killed or sent away to refugee “camps”. Desperate to find out what has happened to his family he arrives in Aleppo, the last known stop for Armenian refugees. He escapes notice by travelling as a Turkish citizen engineer with two German soldiers who provide him with protection. The Germans, Helmut and Eric, are opposed to the idea of the genocide and have been documenting the atrocities photographically. They know that it can get them into trouble but they believe that if the German people get wind of this type of behaviour they will have to break ties with their Turkish allies.

Armen cannot stay in Aleppo long– he has committed to fight against the Turkish oppressors so his time with Elizabeth is fleeting. Their connection is intense and instantaneous and they enjoy getting to know one another. The day finally comes when it is time for Armen to leave to meet up with the Australian army at Galippoli. He and Elizabeth correspond by letter until they are reunited and although you know they end up together you cannot help but hold your breath as situation after situation threaten to part them forever. They eventually reunite to raise their family in the U.S. and live a long and relatively happy life together but there is always a certain sadness that comes over them when their time period in Syria is mentioned. It is something Laura has not thought about until the mysterious photograph surfaces.

The fact that Armen and Elizabeth had shared so very little of their nightmare with their children and grandchildren was a clear indication in his opinion that they wanted their history kept private. “If there is a heaven and you meet your grandparents there, it will be a highly charged meeting.”

The lovers story would be interesting enough but there are several other characters that help to give an over all feel for the times. You will be absolutely heartbroken hearing the tales of nine-year-old Hatoun and her guardian Nevart (I suggest you do NOT read about them on a plane– your seat partner will be uncomfortable with the tears!!). You will cheer for energetic do-gooder, Ryan Martin, an American consul member in charge of the refugees. You will realize that not all Turks share the hatred of the Armenian people as you meet Dr. Akcam, the kind Muslim doctor who takes Elizabeth under his wing and shows her what it means to live by the teachings of the Qur’an. The fates of Eric and Helmut will keep you on the edge of your seat and will haunt you long after they are gone. Even minor characters like Shoushan, the wild orphan girl, and Orhan, the Turkish private with a conscious, contribute to the story in such a compelling way that you will never forget them.

As brilliant as all of these characters were it is truly is the story telling that makes this book a 4.5 star read. Chris Bohjalian writes in such a way that it is IMPOSSIBLE to lay this book down once you have picked it up! The story is woven like a web, revealing only bits at a time until you are trapped, staying up WAY past your bedtime so that you can find out what the heck will happen next. I felt like I was Laura– finding out about her grandparents lives little by little until all of the pieces finally fell together in the end. If i had one complaint it was that it wasn’t long enough! WOW! Just FANTASTIC. Mark July 17, 2012 on your calendar and rush out and buy this book! 4.5 stars!