The granddaughter of an Armenian and a Bostonian investigates the Armenian genocide, discovering that her grandmother took a guilty secret to her grave.
Laura, the narrator of Bohjalian’s latest, is doing genealogical research, attempting to learn more about a fact that has always intrigued her: Her Boston Brahmin grandmother, Elizabeth, and her grandfather, Armen, were brought together by the Armenian genocide. Flash back to 1915. Elizabeth has journeyed to the Syrian city of Aleppo, along with her father, on a mission sponsored by an American relief group, the Friends of Armenia. They have come in an attempt to deliver food and supplies to the survivors of the Armenian massacre. The Turks are using Aleppo as a depot for the straggling remnants of thousands of Armenian women, who have been force-marched through the desert after their men were slaughtered. Elizabeth finds the starved women, naked and emaciated, huddled in a public square, awaiting transports to Der-el-Zor, the desert “relocation camp” where, in reality, their final extermination will take place. Elizabeth takes in two of these refugees, Nevart and an orphan Nevart adopted on the trail, Hatoun, who has been virtually mute since she witnessed the beheading (for sport) of her mother and sisters by Turkish guards. By chance, Elizabeth encounters Armen, an Armenian engineer who has come to Aleppo to search for his wife, Karine. Armen has eluded capture since murdering his former friend, a Turkish official who had reneged on his promise to protect Armen’s family. Despairing of Karine’s survival—and falling in love with Elizabeth—Armen joins the British Army to fight the Turks. Among archival photos viewed by Laura decades later is one of Karine, who did reach the square mere days after Armen left Aleppo. How narrowly did Karine miss reuniting with Armen, Laura wonders, acknowledging that, but for tragic vagaries of fate, the family that produced her might never have come to be.
A gruesome, unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.