Harrowing stories from a broken world
Bone Ash Sky
By Katerina Cosgrove Hardie Grant, 465pp, $29.95
KATERINA Cosgrove’s first novel, The Glass Heart, was published as long ago as 2000. It has been worth the wait for the second (although the author may have a different opinion). The austerely titled Bone Ash Sky is an often grisly panorama of 20th-century history that begins with the displacement of Armenians from their home country by the Turks during World War I.
The Pakradounian family, on whom Cosgrove concentrates, is uprooted from ‘‘ that mythical place called Van’’ whose lake — ‘‘ with its colours of bone and ash and sky’’ — is the focus of nostalgia across the generations.
Some of those who survive what became known (still contentiously in Turkey) as the Armenian genocide or the first holocaust, in which a million people might have perished, find their difficult and circuitous way to Beirut. It is to that city, where she was born 29 years before, that Anoush Pakradounian travels from Boston, in time for the war crimes tribunal in which her father, Selim, has been posthumously indicted.
Spanning 80 years, weaving convoluted family history into a succession of historical calamities, the story is nonetheless always under Cosgrove’s tight narrative control. We move backwards and forwards between the death marches of 1915 from Armenia into Syria, the Lebanese civil war and Israeli occupation of 1982, and the novel’s present time of 1995, in which a peace prevails, however temporary that may prove.
Cosgrove’s account of the genocide is one of the most harrowing extended passages in recent Australian writing: ‘‘ the gendarmes lay the tiny corpses out on the sand’’; ‘‘ This is where three thousand of us were burnt alive only months ago’’; ‘‘ In the coming days the remaining Armenian prisoners were shod like horses with the nails driven into their soles’’.
For those who escape — such as the brother and sister Minas and Lilit Pakradounian — there is one grim, resonant obligation: ‘‘ Observe. Remember. Record.’’
Such horrors recurred, on a smaller scale, in the Lebanese civil war. Selim was second in charge of a Phalangist or Christian militia that specialised in the ‘‘ assassinations of key Muslims’’ and (his particular crime) in murdering Palestinian refugees: ‘‘ They had been instructed to kill every living thing in the Sabra-Shatila camp.’’
Anoush’s quest is to find out how her father, who abandoned her at birth, at the same time as her mother died, was himself killed in 1983. This is not the much trodden fictional path of seeking solace in the uncovering of one’s roots. Rather, Anoush’s venture will confuse, dismay and engulf her. Cosgrove’s heroine is passionate, overwrought and as unforgiving of her failings as of those she proclaims in others.