Armenian Christians in 19th-century Turkey endure discrimination and atrocities at the hands of the government, the Muslim majority, and others in this historical novel.
Inspired by her own Armenian ancestors, debut author Rivers portrays the violence that Armenian Christians faced in their ancestral home in 1895 and ’96. Three narrators in the city of Erzerum in eastern Turkey tell the tale: Martiros, one of four brothers in the prosperous Armenian Kavafian family; his sister-in-law, Marjan; and Hamed, a close neighbor who’s a Muslim and an officer in the Turkish army. After an uprising of Armenian revolutionaries and nationalists in Constantinople, trouble spreads across the country. The government jails Armenians, who also face torture, rape, and murder by soldiers and mobs as they lack the basic rights of their Muslim countrymen. The wave of violence reaches Erzerum with the murder of two impoverished Armenian hay carriers. Later, the government locks up the city’s leading Armenian bishop, and soon, a government-led rampage breaks out, with troops and mobs raping, murdering, and looting. Hundreds of Armenians die and are buried in mass graves. The Kavafians ride out the massacre in a hideaway that Hamed provides them at great peril to his military career, but the oldest Kavafian brother, Sarkis, sneaks out on a secret mission to help resisters and gets killed. After exacting revenge, family members and friends grieve and try to reassemble their broken lives; some elect to leave the country, and Marjan slips into Russia with her family. Rivers weaves a dense, intricate tapestry of the Armenian Christians' lives, set against larger political and social events. The many names of people and places become easier for readers to track thanks to supplemental material, including a brief history, family tree, glossary, and maps. Rivers adeptly evokes the passions and enmities of family relations as the once-comfortable Kavafians try to adjust to their new, nightmarish reality. She also leavens the tale’s tragedy with flashes of wry humor: “A physician makes a lot of friends if he doesn’t kill too many of his patients,” Marjan notes. Although Rivers convincingly details her characters’ personal dilemmas and actions, the government’s political motivations are less clear—but perhaps there’s no explaining state-sponsored madness.
A finely wrought, chilling tale of terror, slaughter, and hardship and of the courage and endurance of those struggling to survive.