Har­row­ing sto­ries from a bro­ken world

Bone Ash Sky

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

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.

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