A huge, sprawling, epic novel about the Armenian genocide in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. And I mean huge and packed with historical information about this seemingly forgotten (and in some quarters controversial) moment in history. Known as the “forgotten genocide”, nearly an (estimated) 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Although there are historical documents - not to mention still living witnesses - regarding the Twentieth Century‘s first mass killing, the topic remains controversial, especially in modern Turkey, who still deny that the event had ever taken place. A little research (and some surviving photos from the time) will show that this event did actually take place and it is from these documents, eyewitnesses and photographs that are the basis of this Tolstoy-esque historical epic.
Centering on a small Armenian village in Anatolia (what is now modern day Armenia), the plot of the novel focuses on one particular family in which its patriarch Vartan Balian, a soldier on the Ottoman Army, is suddenly accused of a murder he didn’t commit. This is all a pretense to get rid of him, as well as his family, not to mention the entire village, when orders come from on high to begin “deporting” the Armenian population from Anatolia. Taken prisoner and sentenced to be hanged for the murder his family is forced to leave the village on a brutal exodus to Aleppo, Syria (then part of the Ottoman Empire) where they are slaughtered along the way. The women were often taken as “concubines” and the children were forced to convert to Islam and given to Turkish families.
Vartan’s family endures a lot on this exodus, losing two of their extended family along the way. But as luck would have it, a Turkish official (and soon to be governor of the province in which many Armenians live) takes a liking to Vartan’s wife and child and being less sympathetic towards the Ottoman officials, takes them in as part of his own family, although his motives aren’t entirely altruistic. Meanwhile, an Ottoman soldier - and friend of Vartan - manages to help Vartan escape just at the moment of his execution and thus begins an “Odyssey”-like journey to be reunited with his wife and son. Being a historical saga, there are plenty of asides about what was taking place at this point in history: the end days of World War I, the rapid deterioration of the Ottoman Empire, the back and forth battles with the British and the French, and finally the entry of the United States into the war. Meanwhile all that happens to the Armenian population is noted in horrific detail. However this serves more of the background of this epic novel. The main focus is on Vartan, his wife Maro and their son Tomas, as Vartan battles every imaginable obstacle in order to find his family.
The novel is written in a very classical style, very reminiscent of Tolstoy (at least to me). There are moments of melodrama and long, meandering scenes which I felt could have been done away with without effecting the story, and sometimes the dialogue can be a little cliched and more suited to a 19th century epic than a contemporary novel but then again it’s written in the style of a 19th century epic in the tradition of Les Miserables or War and Peace, with all its adventure and page turning qualities. The reader gets very involved with all the characters in this story (and there are a lot) but there are times when it reads something like a television mini-series. This is my only real criticism of the novel. Otherwise if you are looking for a really good story about this moment in history, this is definitely worth a read.