The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel

By Chris Bohjalian

( Doubleday, $25.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

With 15 books to his credit, many of them best-sellers, Chris Bohjalian is one of America’s most popular authors. Once a New York City ad man, he moved to Vermont with his wife and raised a now-college age daughter there. In addition to his literary fiction, which ranges from historical novels to contemporary stories, he writes a weekly  column called “Idyll Banter” for the Burlington Free Press.  Bohjalian’s bestsellers include “The Double Bind”, “The Night Strangers” and “Skeletons at the Feast,” along with my favorite, “Before You Know Kindness.” “Midwives” was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club.

What is this book about?

Bohjalian’s father’s family is Armenian, and in conversations we’ve had while I was interviewing him, he told me that someday he would write a novel about the genocide inflicted on his people in 1915 and 1916. “Sandcastle Girls” is that book, and it is inspired by the experiences of his grandparents, who survived the wholesale killing.

The story is told from the perspectives of Elizabeth, a young Mount Holyoke graduate who finds herself in the Middle East during that horror, attempting to save some women who are being herded into death camps and becoming involved with a young Armenian man who has lost his wife and child. Then the narration switches to her granddaughter Laura in contemporary times, who is searching to find out more about  Elizabeth and a terrible secret she may have hidden.

As this personal history plays out, Bohjalian tells the story of a horrific slaughter than nearly wiped out a whole people, sparing few details. The book carries a stark warning: genocide can happen if its perpetrators carry it out in a remote place far from the general world’s notice.

Why you’ll like it:

Bohjalian is a natural storyteller, and here he has compelling material and a personal mission to inspire him. He is especially adept at telling stories from a female point of view – not something all male authors can do – and he also has an instinctive understanding of the emotional issues that women find fascinating to read about. As he did in his World War II novel about Germans fleeing the Russian army, “Skeletons at the Feast,” he uses important and carefully researched historical fact to underlie and over-arch the personal story. This book will likely gain even more attention as the 100th anniversary of the atrocities arrives in 2015.

What others are saying:

“In his latest novel, master storyteller Chris Bohjalian explores the ways in which our ancestral past informs our contemporary lives—in ways we understand and ways that remain mysteriously out of reach. “The Sandcastle Girls” is deft, layered, eye-opening, and riveting. I was deeply moved,” says author Wally Lamb.

“Bohjalian’s powerful novel . . . depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist’s quest to uncover her heritage. . . . His storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read,” says Publishers Weekly.

Library Journal says: “Repeatedly (and embarrassingly accurately) referred to here as “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About,” the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 takes center stage in Bohjalian’s intergenerational novel. Elizabeth Endicott, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate, accompanies her Bostonian banker father on his philanthropic mission to Aleppo, Syria, to aid Armenian refugees fleeing atrocities committed by the Ottoman government. Her friendship with Armenian engineer Armen, who has lost his wife and baby daughter, flourishes when they are apart and can only communicate in letters. Years later, Laura Petrosian, seeking out a photograph of a woman rumored to be her Armenian grandmother, uncovers these letters among a wealth of documents—a treasure trove for an Armenian American novelist searching for pieces of her family history. VERDICT Bohjalian powerfully narrates an intricately nuanced romance with a complicated historical event at the forefront. With the centennial of the Armenian genocide fast approaching, this is not to be missed. Simply astounding.”

“Inspired by his grandparents’ background, [Bohjalian] explores the suffering and atrocities of that time with astounding precision, compassion and grace…Bohjalian deftly weaves the many threads of this story back and forth from past to present, from abuse to humanity, from devastation to redemption. His ability to add irony and wit makes the contrasting horrors even more intense. And his unblinking descriptions of atrocities are staggering…Rather than repelling the reader, Bohjalian’s account makes the gruesome truth utterly riveting,” says Eugenia Zukerman in The Washington Post.

The Associated Press says: “”It takes a talented novelist to combine fully ripened characters, an engrossing storyline, exquisite prose and set it against a horrific historical backdrop—in this case, the Armenian Genocide—and completely enchant readers. The prolific and captivating Chris Bohjalian has done it all—again—with “The Sandcastle Girls” . . . Seamless . . . A fascinating journey through time and history.”

When is it available?

This book is now on the shelves of the Goodwin and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Library.

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