A historical novel of ethnic cleansing in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, told by a young boy burdened by his memories.
Constantinople in 1915 was no place to be Armenian. But neither 12-year-old Aran Pirian nor his younger sister, Anahid, could fathom what awaited their people or their family as the Great War engulfed the empire and a genocide agenda took hold among nationalistic Young Turks. When Aran’s father, Hovan, a science professor, is taken by Ottoman soldiers in the middle of the night, Aran’s world is thrown into eclipse. Fleeing the first wave of ethnic deportations with the aid of Hovan’s sympathetic Turkish colleagues, the family’s exodus begins with a period of hiding that’s reminiscent of Anne Frank’s. Small morsels of hope and the kindness of strangers become Aran and Anahid’s daily succor, along with an old trunk containing precious belongings—Aran’s sketch pads, a book of poems, his sister’s beloved violin. Will these be enough to endure a final escape from the city, an extermination camp and desert wanderings among a caravan of starving refugees at the mercy of Ottoman troops? Not everyone will survive. Withdrawing, orphaned Aran attaches himself to others out of necessity but with a hollow heart, which he convincingly explores in interior lamentations. “It was better not to know whom I was devouring,” he confesses. The book’s dialogue rings less true, cluttered as it is with repetitive questions posed by Anahid and by Aran’s fellow refugee, Grace, both of whom feel more like muses than real girls. Trenchant scenes in a detention camp and a death in the desert keep the narrative crisp and suspenseful in the book’s first half. Unfortunately, the drama begins to flag as Aran finds his way to a new world where Armenia becomes little more than a memory. Readers may feel cheated that such a harrowed history can fade as quickly as a song, even if surviving sometimes means forgetting.
Strong renderings of Armenia’s national nightmare, though the narrator’s quest for meaning ultimately disappoints.