My 2 cents:
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is a book like no other I've read. The author plunks us down squarely in the sweltering heat and sun of 1915 Aleppo, capital of Syria. Through Laura's eyes, a young, blue-eyed, red-haired college graduate from Boston, we see hundreds of Armenian women and childen “march” into Aleppo seeking refuge, many finding death instead.
Don't be embarrassed if you're scratching your head. Listen to Laura on p.6:
“1915 is the year of the Slaughter You Know Next To Nothing About. If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and the massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians. Meds Yeghern. The Great Catastrophe. It's not taught much in school, and it's not the sort of thing most of us read before going to bed.”
Laura's right about that. The Sandcastle Girls isn't exactly a bedtime story, either. The pages describing atrocities inflicted on the Armenians by the Turks are so graphic, I couldn't read them. I simply had to skip over those parts, and even then, while I was turning the page, I caught glimpses of words like, “heads rolling,” “decapitations,” “outrages” (rapes), children being lashed on the heels, a pencil jabbed in a Turkish soldier's eye, children being left in caves to smother to death, white bones stacked high to the sky, and, well, you get the picture.
So that's war, and The Sandcastle Girls is a book about war. About war, and so much more. It's a novel of unforgettable characters: Laura Endicott; her father, Silas Endicott; Armen, the young Armenian engineer Laura meets, who's fought his way to Aleppo to search for his wife and baby daughter; Nevart, a doctor's wife whose husband was killed in the genocide; and Hatoun, the orphaned child Nevart strives to save.
Armen climbs with Laura one day to the top of the Citadel, an ancient castle in ruins in Aleppo. As Laura picks her way through the clumps of rubble, she imagines the palace as it once was with “tiles of turquoise and titian and cobalt blue.”
“Once more she was unprepared for such beauty in the midst of such pain.” (p. 35)
In that sentence is the theme of Bohjalian's remarkable novel. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to shut down my laptop, and read The Sandcastle Girls again. With tissue.
Length: 293 pages
Worth Your Time? Yes. But, because of the war atrocities, it's for an audience of mature high schoolers and older. This book is classified Adult Fiction, not Young Adult Literature.