“In his latest novel, master storyteller Chris Bohjalian explores the ways in which our ancestral past informs our contemporary lives–in ways we understand and ways that remain mysteriously out of reach. The Sandcastle Girls is deft, layered, eye-opening, and riveting. I was deeply moved.” —Wally Lamb
I found myself looking at the copy-editted manuscript the other day for my next novel, The Sandcastle Girls, and felt an unexpected twinge of excitement. The books arrives on July 17. Here are the first 559 words — the first quarter of the prologue.
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When my brother and I were small children, we would take turns sitting on our grandfather’s lap. There he would grab the rope-like rolls of baby fat that would pool at our waists and bounce us on his knees, cooing, “Big belly, big belly, big belly.” This was meant as an affectionate, grandfatherly gesture, not his subtle way of suggesting that if we didn’t lose weight, we would wind up as Jenny Craig testimonials. Just for the record, there is also a chance that when my brother was being bounced on Grandpa’s lap, he was wearing a white turtleneck shirt and red velvet knickers. This is the outfit my mother often had him wear when we visited our grandparents, because this was the get-up that in her opinion made him look most British – and he had to look British, since she was going to make him sing the 1964 Herman’s Hermits pop hit, “I’m Henry the VIII, I am.” The song had been popular five years earlier when she had been pregnant with us, and in some disturbingly Oedipal fashion she had come to view it as their song.
Yup, a fat kid in red velvet knickers singing “Herman’s Hermits” with a bad British accent. How is it that no one beat him up?
I, in turn, would be expected to sing “Both Sides Now,” which was marginally more timely – the song had been popular only a year earlier, in 1968 – though not really any more appropriate. I was four years old and had no opinions at all on love’s illusions. But I did, despite the great dollops of Armenian DNA inside me, have waves of blond spit curls, and so my mother fixated on the lyric, “bows and flows of angel hair.” I wore a blue mini-skirt and white patent leather go-go boots. No one was going to beat me up, but it is a wonder that a social welfare agency never suggested to my mother that she was dressing her daughter like a four-year-old hooker.
My grandfather – both of my grandparents, for different reasons – was absolutely oblivious to rock and roll, and I have no idea what he made of his grandchildren decked out for “American Bandstand.” Moreover, if 1969 were to have a soundtrack, invariably it would have depended upon Woodstock, not “Herman’s Hermits” or Judy Collins. Nevertheless, the only music I recall at my grandparents’ house that year – other than my brother’s traumatizing refrain, “Everyone was a En-er-e (En-er-e!)” – was the sound of the oud when my grandfather would play Armenian folk songs or strum it like a madman while my aunt belly-danced for all of us. And why my aunt was belly-dancing remains a mystery to me: The only time Armenian girls belly-danced was when they were commandeered into a sheik’s harem, and it was a choice of dying in the desert or accepting the tattoos and learning to shimmy. Trust me: You will never see an Armenian girl belly-dancing on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Regardless, the belly-dancing – as well as my grandfather’s affection for his chubby grandchildren – does suggest that their house existed in a penumbra of playfulness and good cheer. Sometimes, it did. But equally often there was an aura of sadness, secrets, and wistfulness. Even as a child I detected the subterranean currents of loss when I would visit.
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