Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls
When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. It’s 1915, and Elizabeth has volunteered to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War. There she meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. After leaving Aleppo and traveling into Egypt to join the British Army, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, realizing that he has fallen in love with the wealthy young American.
Years later, their American granddaughter, Laura, embarks on a journey back through her family’s history, uncovering a story of love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
The Sandcastle Girls is a historical novel about what the author terms the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About, which is the Armenian genocide. I’ll admit I didn’t know anything about the Armenian Genocide until I read The Gendarme by Mark Mustian a few years ago. (Bohjalian lists The Gendarme in the acknowledgments) as one of the novels that was helpful to him in writing The Sandcastle Girls.) I don’t understand politics well enough to know why this horrible event has been virtually ignored but I’m glad books like this one are bringing it to light.
The Sandcastle Girls alternates between the present day first person narration of Laura Petrosian, a novelist who is discovering the story of Elizabeth Endicott, an American aid worker and Armen, an Armenian engineer who meet in Aleppo, Syria in 1915. This book was a wonderful mixture of war, romance, and mystery with a surprise ending that blew me away. Bohjalian doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors that took place during that time. It was hard to read about them but it was important to include them to understand what shaped the people who lived through them. I found the story to be organic and not emotionally manipulative.
I have to include my favorite quote in this review. Elizabeth works in a hospital in Aleppo and befriends the Muslim doctor who also works there. He teaches Elizabeth proverbs from the Koran, which she is fond of quoting. After quoting a proverb to Nevart, her Armenian friend, this exchange takes place:
“‘Soon you are going to become a Mohammedan,’ Nevart tells the American lightly.
‘Not likely. A Unitarian someday, maybe. But I believe that would be the extent of my radicalization.’”
As a Unitarian Universalist myself, I love it when we get a mention in popular culture. I especially love the notion that becoming Unitarian in the early twentieth century would have been radical.
The Sandcastle Girls is an important, emotional book that I highly recommend.
(I received this book courtesy of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)