Fiction – print. Vintage, 2013. Originally published 2012. 299 pgs. Purchased.
In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria to help deliver food and medical aid to Armenian refugees. Women and children reach the city center in horrific condition, having been force marched across the desert without adequate food and water. Their husbands, fathers, and adult sons were accused of being traitors to the Ottoman Empire and killed in what would come to be known as the Armenian Genocide.
Only a handful of men managed to escape the carnage, including a young Armenian engineer named Armen who works with the Ottoman Empire’s ally, Germany, on the development of railroad lines throughout the empire. Armen wants to travel to Egypt and join the British Army, so he can fight against the Turks that killed his wife and infant daughter.
But, as Armen follows through on his plans, he and Elizabeth begin sending letters back and forth and hatching new plans for their future. Elizabeth will tell her parents she wants to stay in Syria to help the Armenians; Armen will return to Aleppo not to extract his revenge but to announce his love for Elizabeth.
Years later, their American granddaughter will discover the contents of these letters and their connection to a series of photographs on display at a museum in Boston. The photographs were clandestinely taken by German soldiers horrified by the treatment of the Armenians in the hopes to creating an irrefutable record of the atrocities. But they also serve as a record of the pain survivors continue to experience well after the genocide ends.
The federal government in the United States does not recognize the Armenian genocide as a genocide, although 49 out of is 50 states have passed resolutions acknowledging it as such. Much like the German government in Bohjalian’s government, this federal government refuses to do so in order to appease Turkey as a military ally in the region.
I mention this because I appreciated how Bohjalian drew parallels within the text between the past and the near future, where a genocide will be carried out by the formerly horrified Germans and some countries will continue to prioritize military operations over truth and reconciliation.
But I also mention it because I think the failure to acknowledge contributes to the lack of books – fiction and nonfiction – on the Armenian genocide. Therefore, even though the underlying story of Bohjalian’s book is common and overdone when set during other genocides, its non-Holocaust setting makes it feel unique.
I say common because, ultimately, the story is about a survivor moving on with their lives without realizing the truth of what happened to their families. It’s a similar premise covered by other books, including The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman.
Hence why I have mixed feelings about the book. I can’t say the unique setting makes up for the lack of originality, but there is still something refreshing about seeing an author step away from the Holocaust setting. (Although, Bohjalian has written a novel set during that genocide, too.) And I do have to praise the writing style; it is a great example of why I count Bohjalian among my favorite authors, even if the content of his stories don’t always work for me.
This is my sixteenth book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased my copy at a used book sale in Boston on October 4, 2014.