On the eve of World War I, an Armenian black marketeer conceives a hazardous plan to help his family escape from Turkey to Cyprus.
As this novel begins, Tavid Kaloustian is already playing a risky game by selling opium resin and buying weapons in Constantinople, which he distributes to Armenians. History and his freedom-fighter grandfather have taught him to be wary; Armenians in Turkey have undergone persecution and now, in 1914, are again being targeted, and the ports are closed to them. When Tavid receives a letter from his grandfather, thought to be dead, inviting him and the family to Cyprus, he resolves to get them there—but first he will arm and train his fellow villagers back home. Employing disguise, explosives, weapons, bribery and fearless leadership, Tavid engineers a perilous escape. In his debut novel, Topouzian illuminates a historical episode that deserves wider understanding; the United States still does not officially recognize the 1915–16 forced deportations and massacres, which killed 1.5 million Armenians, as genocide, although many international bodies—including the International Association of Genocide Scholars—have done so. Topouzian sheds a warm light on Armenian culture and traditions, especially food, drink and hospitality, while acknowledging that “[i]n some ways, we are our own worst enemy. United we are not.” Colorful Turkish and Armenian expressions are woven through the book, and Topouzian has some memorable scenes, from battles to tender moments—as when a dying father says to his daughter, “Come! Give your father a bachig [kiss] so I can take it with me and show Christ and make him jealous.” A subplot involving Tavid’s love interest isn’t wellintegrated into the story, the book’s middle section is somewhat formless and phrasing is occasionally clumsy (“Reflexing, Shant looked back”). Topouzian’s footnotes and glossary, while helpful, are inconsistently provided. Tavid’s character is also problematic: while brave and strong, he also seems to relish killing, which tarnishes his heroism.
Loose and rough in places, but a dramatic story of fighting for freedom.