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Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (4/5). A harrowing tale of right and wrong.

4 Jul

This was on the tail end of my reading list so I didn’t think I’d get to it so soon, but it being the first available non-CD audiobook (yes, that is very specific), it made its way up quickly. I wanted to read another Bohjalian book after meeting him and as my cousin-in-law once removed (again, specific) is Armenian, I wanted to read this. So yeah, I read it. Well, listened to it; same thing.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire began systematically killing Armenians by first executing the men and then leading the women and children on a death march across the desert. Elizabeth Endicott and her father have traveled from Boston to Aleppo, Syria to help the woman arriving daily from across the desert. She meets Armenian engineer Armen and refugees Nevart and Hatoun who introduce her to life in Syria and Armenian culture she’s previously been oblivious to. She’s swept up by the sad stories of Armen and his past-wife and how Hatoun lost her mother and sisters crossing the desert and how Nevart’s husband will never come back to her.

The story is interspersed with narration from Laura Petrosian, Elizabeth and Armen’s granddaughter and the author of the story (It’s a ‘story within a story’ feel). She is retracing her family history during the genocide and learning things about her grandparents that they never told her in their lifetimes.

I really really REALLY enjoyed this book. Bohjalian combined drama, action, and history in a wonderful whirlwind of story. I liked how Elizabeth and Laura mirrored each other in their time almost 100 years apart. I felt that Laura’s portions of the book were not too overwhelming and fit the book well. The only part I didn’t like (and this isn’t much of a complaint) is that it ended too quickly. It was appropriate, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted a bit more. (FYI, the ending is about to be spoiled. Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want it to be ruined.) After Karine died, I wanted to see how Elizabeth came to deal with the guilt (because I’m assuming she felt something) and secret that she had to keep from the man who would be her husband. I guess this is another case of me not wanting the story to end.

I loved the characters and I thought Bohjalian did a wonderful job of developing voices for each. Ryan Miller had a strong backbone and motivation completely different from Armen or Alicia Wells. The German soldiers had a sense of humor and secretiveness to them that other characters didn’t have. I think Hatoun’s character was my favorite. She was such a sad and quiet little girl that getting inside her head the way Bohjalian did was really enlightening. She showed the reader what it was like to be a refugee and even though it was softened slightly through the eyes of a child, it was still chilling.

Laura was my favorite character, if that’s fair. I feel like I should choose one of the characters from the Aleppo setting, but I keep coming back to how much I loved Laura. She was so brutally honest even though she knew people wouldn’t like what she had to say. She was revealing a huge family secret (Annie’s Ghosts?) and didn’t seem too worried about what her family would think.

Due to a very vague connection, I related to Elizabeth. Her relationship with Armen reminded me of myself and my husband. Now don’t rush into things, let me explain. I had a crush on my husband for a very long time while he was dating another girl. I waited and waited for him to be available, but they stuck it out for longer than I thought they would. I was reminded of this as Elizabeth waited to see if Karine would show up in Aleppo from across the desert. She could look at Armen- touch him, laugh with him, and love him- but until he gave up on Karine, she couldn’t be with him. I sympathized for her while she waited for him. In the end, I could understand, though not fully agree with, her actions but they still made me sad.

Me and Chris Bohjalian

Me and Chris Bohjalian

I enjoyed when Laura talked about growing up Armenian (yes, I’m reverting back to my favorite character again). She talked about her first real boyfriend, Berk, and how it was an issue for her parents because he was Turkish. Her father, only one generation removed from the atrocity, couldn’t understand it and thought it was a violation of her Armenian heritage. But for Laura, it was no big deal. I think this speaks volumes to the differences of prejudices and opinions between generations. A more lighthearted example but the first time my grandmother met my husband, she said to him, (her first words) “You look Italian.” When he confirmed that he is, in fact, Italian, she said, “That’s okay. They were on our (the German) side during the war.” Yes, that would be World War II. Thank you, Grandma.

I’m still wishing the book was longer. Just a little more of Elizabeth’s turmoil about telling her husband the truth about his late wife would have helped, I think. I won’t say the end was my least favorite part, but it let me down. Why do books have to end?

I liked how Bohjalian decided to talk about himself in this book while still writing historical fiction. There was an interview with him at the end of the audio I had where he said Laura was a lot like him and his discovery of what it means to be Armenian. I also liked what he was able to say about family. Navart and Hatoun were able to become family by a shared experience. They were more or less adopted by Elizabeth due to necessity but one can’t say they’re not family. A family is what you make of it, even though it starts with blood.

Writer’s Takeaway: The Sandcastle Girls is a great example of point of view. Laura gives a first person narration that’s very conversational in tone. We move to those in Aleppo and we get a series of third person limited points of view that work together to tell the whole story Laura is trying to write. I think is a really great example of how to combine first and third person point of view, which one doesn’t see done very often.

Again, I loved this but was disappointed there wasn’t more to it. Four out of five stars.

This book meets two challenge goals! The first is the 1910-1929 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge. The second is ‘Syria’ for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge. Yay for double dipping!

Until next time, write on.

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