Like most people I hear about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East on the news, and see them in the paper, and people’s comments all over the internet. But am I really engaged with it? To be honest I never have been, as I have no personal connection to the Middle East and have always had other things to worry about, closer to home. Last year I read a novel called Freshta, by Czech author Petra Prochazkova. It was sent to me the lovely people at Stork Press and opened my eyes to an entirely new perspective (to me at least) on conflict and everyday life in the Middle East. It tells the story of Herra, a Russian married to an Afghani and living with his family. The domestic and largely female angle of the novel made me think about the other side of things – about them rather than us.
Bone Ash Sky had a similar effect on me, but in a much larger context. There are three time periods within the novel – the Armenian massacre of 1915 and its effects on young Lilit and her brother Minas; Beirut in the early 80s during the Lebanese civil war; and the travels of Anoush in 1995. She is Armenian but was sent to school in Boston as a teenager; at the start of the novel she arrives in Beirut, determined to discover the truth about her family’s history. She is also there to attend the tribunal of her deceased father, Selim, and the men he worked with. They were Christian militiaman during the civil war and are being tried for war crimes. Was her father really a war criminal? Anoush grapples with this question throughout the novel, as she tries to come to terms not only with her father’s actions during the war but also the experiences of her grandmother Lilit and Lilit’s brother Minas – Selim’s father.
Anoush is an interesting character; she is the catalyst for our exploration into her family’s past, as she collects information and writes her articles for the American newspaper she works for. Lilit and Minas’ entire life stories are contained within Bone Ash Sky, and they continue to live in their children and their grandchild, Anoush; this legacy, heritage, is key to the novel. Anoush cannot know who she is or how she feels about her parents until she digs further into the past. Every generation must be seen in the context of the ones before them.
Cosgrove manages to shift between time periods and narrative threads with ease and you never get confused or muddled, despite there being a huge cast of characters (that only grows) and an overarching narrative that gets more complex as it goes along. Bone Ash Sky took Cosgrove two months to draft, and ten years and several research trips to perfect; and you can tell. The plotting is careful and she has clearly thought hard about structure and the effect of the previous passage or chapter on the one you are now reading. This is a novel full of intense moments, tragedy and drama, but Cosgrove’s storytelling is never melodramatic or heavy handed, though it easily could be. It doesn’t get bogged down in overwrought emotion or pointless comparisons between the Americans Anoush has grown up with and the Armenians and Lebanese of her childhood. I liked the matter-of-fact attitude, but don’t get me wrong, this novel is not without heart. Love and loyalty across generations, but also borders and religions, connect people throughout the book. Hate connects them too; deeply rooted feelings of resentment, planted at a young age, continue to plague certain characters well into adulthood, and affect everything they do. There are certain things you just never forget.
This book came to me by chance, and I’m glad it did. At 464 pages in proof form it’s no quick read but it is worth the time and emotional investment. Even if you don’t think you’re that bothered about the Middle East, and especially if you have never heard of the 1915 Armenian massacre, read Bone Ash Sky.
Published by Hardie Grant in the UK and Australia on 1st July 2013.
My interview with Katerina Cosgrove will be published in two parts over the course of the week – keep an eye out for it!