Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2021

Bone Ash Sky, by Katerina Cosgrove

As you can see from the cover images above, the dustjacket for this remarkable book differs from the cover.  The dustjacket on the left is an image of Damascus in 1925, while the cover is an image of Aleppo in 2012.  The contrast between these two images is a sobering introduction to what is a very sobering book.  This is the blurb from the back of the book:

When Anoush Pakradounian steps off a boat and feels Levantine heat on her cheek like a caress, she thinks she knows where she’s going: she thinks she knows who’s right and who’s wrong.  Yet nothing about her family’s past is black and white.

In 1915 one million Armenians were marched into Syria by Turks and killed in the first genocide of the twentieth century. In 1982 Beirut came under siege for three months and 18,000 civilians died, while another 30,000 were wounded. Anoush’s quest for answers is interwoven with the memory of ruined cities and vanished empires: Lake Van before the genocide, Beirut in civil war, Ottoman villas and desecrated churches, Palestinian refugee camps and torture chambers turned into nightclubs. Her search to find out the truth about her father, her grandparents and her own place in the story spans four generations and massive upheavals in the Middle East.

So, no, despite the story span of four generations, it’s not your typical family saga.  It’s actually very difficult to read because there is so much violence and Cosgrove does not spare the reader some very confronting images.

Anoush, a journalist of Armenian heritage, was born in Lebanon but sent to the US to escape the violence when she was sixteen.  Her story, narrated first person, begins in 1995 when she returns to Lebanon after the death of her uncle Sarkis, the last surviving member of her family.  There is a UN war crimes tribunal being held, and she thinks she may be able to learn the truth about her father’s actions during the Lebanese Civil War.  His story and its antecedents unravel through chapters set before and during 1915 when the Armenian genocide took place; in 1925 in a refugee camp in the aftermath; and in 1982 during the civil war.  The constant changing from one time period to another is unsettling and it makes it difficult to piece events together, but the structure reinforces the cruel messiness of life in the Middle East.

Anoush struggles with her own identity. Waiting for the ferry to Beirut, she jousts with her friend Dilek whose family have hosted her for a week on Cyprus.  She brushes off Dilek’s concerns about solo travel and the emotional cost of the trip:

‘Thank your relatives again for me.  Tessukur ederim.  Is that how you say it?’

It strikes me as wrong even as I open my mouth.  That I speak so readily the language of the people who killed my ancestors.  Yet Dilek’s aunts, uncles and cousins have been warm, overly hospitable.  My own uncles are dead, my aunts lost to Turks or Kurds or Bedouin, cousins unborn.  My father, mother, grandparents, all gone.  Dilek didn’t tell her family that I’m Armenian.  I’m not myself anymore.  (p.4)

Armenian Dance (Wikipedia)

Cosgrove recreates Armenian culture with great delicacy.  It is one thing to know about the genocide as an historical fact, and another to discover through the pages of this novel that Armenians had their own alphabet and literature; that ancient song and dance were integral parts of village life; that they made beautiful woven textiles including carpet-weaving; and that they were sophisticated creators of jewellery, symbolised by a pair of earrings which survive against the odds for the next generation.  There are mouth-watering descriptions of Armenian food which sent me searching online… from Wikipedia I discovered this:

A very important aspect of the Armenian cuisine is the traditional bread called Lavash. In 2014, “Lavash, the preparation, meaning and appearance of traditional bread as an expression of culture in Armenia” was included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

There are four other elements of Armenian culture worthy of protection. (Australia doesn’t have anything on the list).

BTW, yes, Melbourne does have an Armenian restaurant: it’s called Sezar and it’s going straight onto my bucket list!

Without rose-coloured glasses, Cosgrove also portrays the simple lifestyle at Lake Van in 1905 when Lilit, Anoush’s grandmother, was a little girl.  She hears stories about depredations by advancing Kurds, but she knows that there had always been an uneasy relationship: nomad Muslims, farming Christians, Ottoman overlords.  While the women are told reassuring stories about longstanding Kurdish respect for Armenians, her brother Minas knows a different history and has no illusions.  Much as the Armenians wished to believe they were autonomous, they had always been subject to the Turks.

Minas knew the men were wrong.  Or lying, to keep their women quiet. They hadn’t read all the books he had.  Most of them were afraid of the Kurds, bowing and smiling on the street, yet calling them the Turks’ butchers under their breath.  They did all the dirty work.  The Turks paid them to crucify Armenians a long time ago, for being Christian.  The old men swapped these ancient stories between breaths, wheezing in the high air as they cut wood for winter. (p.18)

The Turkish genocide in 1915 is well-documented, but Cosgrove’s narrative describes the horror with vivid detail, alleviated only a little by the survival of Anoush’s ancestors Minas and Lilit. It’s an extraordinary story of courage, luck and resilience, but the intergenerational damage is extreme.

Sanaya, in Beirut in 1982. senses the other people in her building continuing to surrender to the instinctive desire to bring some order and comfort into life amid the chaos and death.  The concierge of her building has been killed by a hooded gunman while crossing the street.

Which militia the murderer had belonged to, nobody knew.  Anybody could find a gun nowadays and patrol their corner of the street without fear of censure. Except, of course, when a bigger militia decided to claim the same turf. (p.166).

Curiously, Sanaya realises that perhaps she doesn’t want the war to end.

If it ended, this ultimate distraction from real life and its pressures — find a job, choose a husband, accumulate wealth, have children, succeed, compete — would no longer hold any sway.  Nobody was competing now, except to kill each other.  Most people were living in the moment, helping each other in small, delicate ways to survive.

The only thing she was afraid of in this war was death.  Living with the war had become a necessary distraction, a challenge of daily habit.  It came closer each day, placing a hand on her shoulder like a friend.  Dying in the war was another matter entirely.  (p.167)

Cosgrove is careful not to assign blame to any groups.  The aptly named Rowda harangues Anoush about politics with rants about Israelis and white people and Western academics, the US conspiracy to keep the Arab world down.  

I agree with some of what she says but will never admit it, and my agreement doesn’t go so far as to condemn anyone who isn’t Arab, or black, or oppressed.  And then there’s Chaim [her Israeli lover doing mine clearance in the Palestinian areas] — and what he’s taught me about not hating, about questioning everything.  So each time Rowda begins one of her rants, I cut her off.  If she speaks of Palestinian civilian deaths, I tell her of the latest bombing in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.  If she speaks of the rights of a dispossessed people, I counter with the tattered remnants, survivors of the Holocaust, who found the only place that would have them.  (p.418)

Long books like this aren’t often chosen by book groups, but I imagine that Bone Ash Sky could give rise to passionate debate on all sides.

Katerina Cosgrove was a finalist in the 2020 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award with her story ‘Zorba the Buddhist’. She publishes regularly at SBS and you can find out more about her from her website.

Image credits: Armenian dance, by Raffi Kojian / http://www.armeniapedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18151084

Author: Katerina Cosgrove
Title: Bone Ash Sky
Cover and text design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781742705859, pbk., 483 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.95


Responses

  1. I don’t do both-sideism, especially when it comes to Palestine. And in that context I find it interesting that she blames the immediate killing (of Armenians) on the Turks’ enemies, the Kurds. May well be true, but it still sounds a bit like looking for a way to not assign all the blame to the Turks.

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    • Well, I’m not interested in books that lay the blame for events like this squarely on one side. Life, and history, and people, are much more complex than that.

      Like

  2. As good as the book may be, I suspect that if you find it confronting it would definitely be too much for me… 🙁

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    • I think it must have been very difficult to research and write. It put me in mind of If This is a Woman, by Sarah Helm which is about the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Horrific to read, but horrific for the author too.
      There were some scenes in this that were like the Holocaust, in the sense that you can’t quite believe that people could do such things to another human being, and on such a scale, yet you know that indeed they did and that it’s true. Beyond comprehension in every way.

      Liked by 1 person


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