When Aline Ohanesian was a child, her Armenian great-grandmother told her about the family's dramatic exile from Turkey during the 1915 Armenian genocide. Ohanesian used this as inspiration for "Orhan's Inheritance," a remarkable debut novel that exhibits an impressive grasp of history as well as narrative intensity and vivid prose. It moves back and forth with confidence between the 1990s and 1915.
The novel opens in 1990 in Karod, a village in a remote area of Turkey: "Here shepherds follow the bleating of long-haired goats, and squat village women carry bundles of kindling on their backs. … Dry-rotted timber, blocks of concrete and sheets of corrugated tin stand feebly upon ancient Byzantine stone structures whose architectural complexity suggests a more glorious past."
Orhan Turkoglu, a 29-year-old Turk, lives in Istanbul where Tarik Inc., his family business, is located. Tarik manufactures and exports handwoven textiles, specializing in kilim (prayer rugs). He is traveling luxuriously by private car to Karod, where the will of his grandfather, Kemal Bey, is being read. At age 90, Kemal committed suicide by immersing himself in a massive copper caldron of fabric dye outside the family home. As expected, the will entrusts Tarik Inc. to Orhan.
The dilapidated family home where Orhan's father and aunt have lived for decades, however, is left to a woman named Seda Melkonian who lives in California, in a residence for elderly Armenians.
Boarding a Boeing 747 bound for Los Angeles, Orhan plans to offer Seda Melkonian money in exchange for her signature on the deed to the house. But obstacles confront him.
The 1915 story line features Orhan's ancestors, particularly his grandfather Kemal as a young man. Kemal is a Muslim Turk who is courting Lucine Melkonian, a 14-year-old girl from a rich and prominent Christian Armenian family.
The onset of World War I means persecution followed by deportation for Armenians living in Turkey. No matter that their churches and monasteries date back to the Crusades — they are viewed as an internal threat, "an enemy living within the state." Inevitably, Lucine hears through a kitchen window the chilling words of the town crier:
"All Armenian men between the ages of 20 and 60 must report to the town meeting … Seven-thirty tonight. The rest of you start preparing for relocation."
Ohanesian sprinkles her prose with remarkably apt — and often funny — metaphors. Her book is enriching on many levels, with a core theme common in literary fiction: "What matters is not what the world does to you, but how you respond."
Katherine Bailey is a book critic in Bloomington.