Today is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On this night in 1915, Armenian leaders and professionals were captured and most of them were executed by the Ottoman Turks. In the next few years approximately 75% of Armenians, 1.5 million people, living in the Ottoman Empire were dead. Most Armenians living today descend from the 25% who survived that genocide.
Aline Ohanesian’s timely novel Orhan’s Inheritance shares this relatively unknown history through the lives of a survivor and a Turk. Author Chris Bohjalian’s 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, made many readers aware of the genocide which he called “the Slaughter You Know Nothing About.” Ohanesian continues his legacy by taking readers into the history that Turkey still refuses to acknowledge. Ohanesian told Lynn Neary on NPR’s Weekend Edition “There’s only about 6 to 8 inches between an open book and a human being’s heart.” Orhan’s Inheritance bridges those inches with a compelling tale of Orhan Turkuglu who finds that he’s inherited his family business after his grandfather’s death in a small Turkish Village. He also learns that his grandfather has left their family home and its cherished mulberry tree to an 87-year-old Armenian woman who lives in a retirement home in California. Orhan takes his grandfather’s sketchbook to Los Angeles where he meets Seda who slowly shares the painful story of her connection to his family and their lives in 1915. Orhan wants to learn her story yet, he’s fearful as it could mean that his family would lose their home and all they’ve believed.
As Orhan sits before Seda he realizes “This woman before him is like an ancient tapestry whose tightly woven threads could tell quite a tale, if only he knew how to unravel them. One loose thread and the whole thing could come tumbling out of her pursed lips.” Seda’s story untangles the carefully constructed history that Orhan grew up believing but in its place comes a realization that acknowledging reality was one purpose of his grandfather’s bequest.
The book’s settings: Orhan’s village that seems so unchanged over the years, the Armenian retirement home with its muted colors and expectations, and the 1915 world of the Ottoman Empire infuse the novel with color and a brightness that contrasts with the horrific scenes of war and atrocities. As the novel wends its way between the annihilation of the Armenians and the fears of the Turks today, Orhan learns of family secrets and of a history he never knew existed. Ohanesian recounts the war through the eyes of both Seda and Orhan’s grandfather, Kemal. In a flashback to the war, Kemal tells his fellow soldier Hüsnü, “You know what’s nice? What’s nice is shooting blindly into the dusty unknown, with your comrades flanked on both sides, so no one need take responsibility for ending a life. That’s what’s nice.” Hüsnü is brave and jaded yet later when a fellow soldier dies “Kemal feels as if he’s swallowed a piece of shrapnel. His tears so often shed for paltry birds and strangers, are no longer at the ready. It is Hüsnü who breaks down, hiding his face in his sleeve." Ohanesian’s ability to show both the Turks who were killing and the Armenians who were dying as real people makes this novel palatable and engaging.
When the novel returns to the present, it shares the concerns of today’s younger Armenians who beg for recognition alongside women like Seda for whom revisiting the past is so painful. Using art as a metaphor allows both the survivors and the descendants of the perpetrators to understand “betrayals and resurrections." Seda talks of the need for both empathy and action and Ohanesian’s words provide a glimpse into a long forgotten world where readers respect the past and honor those who were lost.
Summing it Up: Orhan’s Inheritance is a powerful novel of love, loss, war, and denial. Ohanesian makes unpalatable subjects captivating by sharing the lives of caring, compassionate people who did what needed to be done in untenable times. This is a perfect novel for book discussion groups.
Rating: 4 stars
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: April 14, 2015
Author Website: http://www.alineohanesian.com/
Interview with the Author: Library Journal: http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2015/04/books/fiction/writing-to-remember-a-20th-century-tragedy-inspires-a-debut-novel/
Reading Group Guide: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/3210/orhans-inheritance#reading_guide
What Others are Saying:
Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2015/0408/Orhan-s-Inheritance-cleverly-intertwines-first-love-ancient-betrayal-secrets-and-war-crimes
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/books/orhans-inheritance-digs-through-history-to-reveal-family-secrets-b99469762z1-298593251.html
Minneapolis Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/298919881.html
National Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/2015/04/18/400424865/orhans-inheritance-is-the-weight-of-history?utm