In The Sandcastle Girls, Chris Bohjalian crafts a skilled and sad historical fiction novel. It centers on the little-known Armenian genocide around the time of World War I. Tragically, the Ottoman government expelled and mass murdered 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey and the surrounding area.
To tell the story, Bohjalian uses past and present timelines. In the present we meet Laura, whose grandfather Armen survived the genocide, as she investigates more of his story. She learns much of the story from her American grandmother Elizabeth’s letters, journals, and other papers. Elizabeth met Armen after he escaped to Syria, when she was part of a charitable effort to help the Armenians there. So, Bohjalian moves us between Elizabeth’s time and Laura’s, primarily focusing on their stories. But he also uses other perspectives to a lesser degree, including Armen’s.
This is a heartbreaker of a story, but there’s also hope and survival. Elizabeth and Armen are each strong in their own right, and together they seem indomitable. This is how Laura knew them as a child, yet now she learns some nuances of their history. Not everything was the way it seemed.
Elizabeth honestly wanted to make the world a better place. Some of the story is also about her relationship with two other Armenians in Syria—a woman and a pre-teen girl. The genocide’s traumatic realities become clear through their memories and current dilemmas.
One of the reading challenges I’m completing this year has a prompt about genocide. I’ve read so much about the Holocaust that I wanted to learn about something else. Since I bought The Sandcastle Girls ages ago, it’s the perfect time to read it.
In general, I appreciate Bohjalian’s style and have enjoyed a few of his other books. Since he’s part Armenian, I expected extra care in his storytelling. I wasn’t disappointed. But I also wonder if he worked particularly hard to be objective and not get overly emotional, given his personal connection to this era. If so, that explains why the characters seemed distant to me. It was hard to connect with their emotions, even though the story moved me overall.
The story lines are taut, especially the sections in Syria. But the relatively short chapters are split between each timeline. Sometimes that felt pretty jarring and might also contribute to my feelings of distance.
Despite all that, Bohjalian does a good job telling an often-overlooked time in relatively recent history. I recommend The Sandcastle Girls if fiction about this time, place, and events interests you.
Pair with The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clementine Wamariya. That book is a memoir about the more recent Rwandan genocide. Or try A Quiet Genocide from Glenn Bryant, which is about one searing aspect of the Holocaust.