Chris Bohjalian, with his sixteenth novel, has managed to tell the horrific tale of the Armenian Genocide while maintaining a wonderfully plotted novel, complete with a sweeping love story circa 1915, and a glimpse into how modern Armenians view the tragic slaying of their people—a story that almost no one knows about today. We know about the Holocaust, and we know about the slave trade, but somehow 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered after World War I, and it is a piece of history that is buried in the sand, so to speak.
“The women look like dying wild animals as they lurch forward, some holding on the walls of the stone houses to remain erect. She has never in her life seen people so thin and wonders how in the name of God their bony legs can support them. Their breasts are lost to their ribs. The bones of their hips protrude like baskets. ‘Elizabeth, you don’t need to watch,’ her father is saying. She does. She does.”
Elizabeth Endicott has just arrived in Aleppo, Syria with her recently earned diploma from Mount Holyoke, having studied a bit of nursing and even less of the Armenian language. But she was determined to join her father as a volunteer on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide. Elizabeth sees things she could never fathom, and meets people who both break her heart and enrich it, including Armen, a young Armenian engineer who simultaneously grieves and plots against the Turks in his head, one thought process aching, the other fiery. After they become attached, Armen leaves Aleppo and travels into Egypt to join the British army. He begins to write Elizabeth letters, and she responds, though carefully, as at the time, she had no idea who might be reading them. She must maintain propriety and diplomacy even if she wants to scream, or she will be removed, and what little help her group has managed to provide will be for naught.
This plot is juxtaposed with the present day, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate home was affectionately nicknamed “The Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really pondered her Armenian heritage. She was a typical American child, and though she may have heard the term “starving Armenians” at some point, she never thought about where it might stem from, let alone thought that her own family might be so closely connected to the experience. But when Laura gets a phone call from a friend about a newspaper article that may be connected to her family (her grandparents never talk about that time period), she is forced to investigate and face head on what the past meant to her family.
Bohjalian did some great research, and he expertly weaves together Laura’s visits to museums and news archives, while articulating how difficult this investigation would be for a woman and her family, and maintaining the narrative flow as the reader is continually brought back to Syria in 1915. For the most part, the Armenians were not slaughtered in their home country, but forced by the Turks to march miles and miles in the Syrian desert—some say because it is so remote that it was easier to carry off such genocide without the world protesting. The men have it easier in most ways—they were usually shot point blank on site, not made to suffer the marches that the women and children were forced into. This gruesome account is hard to read at times, but Bohjalian handles it with humanity and as much grace as possible while still getting the point across that this was one of the more heinous injustices of the 20th century.
Elizabeth is the more compelling of the two main female characters. Here we have a young woman who is trying to make her mark on the world and do some good who continually comes up against the roadblocks of her gender, her age, her father and his expectations, and her tender heart. The love story between her and Armen is a welcome distraction from the horror that cannot be ignored. The connection they have is a testament to humanity and how good can be found in the most corrupt of places. The novel follows their individual trials as well as narrating the precious time they have together. Other great characters include a highly educated Armenian widow who finds herself without an identity anymore—she is the symbol of what happened to so many. She takes an orphan (and there are so many of them) under her wing and they meet Elizabeth, who arranges for them both to stay at the Embassy with her in Aleppo, which is a dangerous proposition, but one which Elizabeth, strong-willed as she is, insists upon. There are many moments of characters standing up for what’s right (including the surprise heroism of a German soldier), but the frustration of the situation is rightfully impressed upon the reader, who always knows that though acts of kindness might save a few lives, it is never enough.
Bohjalian has written a novel on love and war that is obviously close to his own heart, as he is of Armenian descent and has ancestors were affected by this history. But he never loses sight of the fact that he has a story to tell well, and with his usual deftness with narrative, he delivers. This book hit me hard because I am also of Armenian descent, and have a grandmother who fled Armenia under terrifying circumstances, and had sisters who did not make it out. But even if the reader has no connection to this historic event, the story can stand alone, and it is an important and powerful read.