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Originally published Saturday, July 14, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'The Sandcastle Girls': lingering ghosts of the Armenian genocide

Chris Bohjalian's new book "The Sandcastle Girls" takes on a subject close to the author's heart: the Armenian genocide.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Sandcastle Girls'

by Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday, 299 pp., $25.95

Laura Petrosian, a protagonist in "The Sandcastle Girls," is a novelist who built her career writing "about New Agey women on the social margins."

As it happens, so has author Chris Bohjalian, whose books have been about a midwife, a holistic healer and a transgendered man/woman, among other interesting subjects.

It becomes clear early on that Petrosian is the author's stand-in, an explorer in search of Armenian roots almost 100 years after the "Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About."

In 1915, Petrosian's grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, a young Boston Brahmin, travels to Aleppo in the Ottoman Empire to aid refugees caught up in the Turkish slaughter of Armenians. There she meets and falls in love with Armen, an engineer whose wife and child have died.

Elizabeth and Armen survive "the slaughter, starvation and disease" relatively unscathed, travel to the U.S., and live the American dream of middle-class prosperity and family. But even as a child, Laura sensed "an aura of sadness, secrets and wistfulness" in her grandparents' lives. She'd previously attempted to write a book about them, but that proved "a train wreck."

When Laura discovers an old photo of an Armenian woman with her last name, she investigates and makes an unsettling discovery.

It's not difficult to figure out the "surprise" ending, but it is handled with such skill and panache, it seems dead-solid perfect.

Bohjalian is a literary novelist unafraid to reference Proust's madeleine and expect readers to get it. But his books are also filled with artfully drawn characters and great, passionate storytelling.

"The Sandcastle Girls" is all that, but different, more powerful. His descriptions of the brutality and the genocide make it obvious that this time, it's personal.

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