The Euphrates Rises Again
It has been a big month for Armenian-American literature. Chris Bohjalian’s newly released book The Sandcastle Girls has received a very positive reception from the nation’s reviewers. Many have referenced the heartfelt nature of the book and the author’s closeness to the subject matter, the Armenian Genocide, a sentiment that could be said for all books authored by Armenians.
One can name other Armenian-American authors that have dealt with the Armenian Genocide, Peter Balakian and Nancy Kricorian to name a few. But how about Carol Edgarian? Edgarian’s bestselling book Rise the Euphrates, first published in 1994 and recently re-released as an e-book, was one of the first mainstream books from the 1990s to deal with the Armenian Genocide from an American perspective.
Rise the Euphrates details three generations of an Armenian family in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide. It begins with the story of Casard, a young girl at the time of the killings, who carries a shameful secret that underpins the entire narrative and follows the story of her daughter and granddaughter as they live their lives in the shadow of the Genocide.
This book is truly significant. It was, at the time, one of the most highly anticipated books of the year. This was unique considering that Edgarian was a young, untested author at the time of publication and that this was her first book — she was 32 at the time of publication.
And the book itself was well received by critics. It was endlessly praised by a diverse range of publications. It must be said that some of the praise was needlessly sentimental. The New York Times took it to a whole new level when it wrote “Where is Armenia today? … One could almost say that Armenia exists in Carol Edgarian’s prose.”
However as you would expect, not all the reviews were glowing. New York Magazine savaged the book criticizing everything from its prose to the characters. The reviewer, Walter Kirn, wrote that he resented being “morally railroaded” and ended the review proclaiming that “Tragic events still have to be earned; they can’t just be imported from the history books. The Armenians deserve a better monument and the therapy epic deserves an unmarked grave.”
This is, of course, the most extreme critical review and, in my opinion, grossly unfair. The book itself is solid and well developed but of course, not without its flaws. It opens with a quote from Ecclesiastes which sets the tone for entire story:
All the rivers flow into the sea
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow
There they flow again.
— Ecclesiastes 1:7
It is a decidedly Old Testament story, grim, and unforgiving. The characters are interesting and well developed. The central themes of morality and character are beautifully conveyed. The sheer amount of historical research is evident. Edgarian describes each era is such convincing detail from dates and places to the actual mannerisms of people in each time period. However the style of writing used, at times, lacks depth and the horrible violence, which is described in great detail, feels almost voyeuristic.
That being said, there are moments where the prose is hauntingly beautiful. When we begin to hear the story of Casard, the reader is told “Upon the ancient soil of Armenia, a girl called Garod lost her name and became Casard.” The idea of reclaiming Casard’s name becomes central to the story, almost as if Casard has lost her name as her people have lost their land. However there are times when the story feels almost tedious, where some conversations drag on endlessly.
Armenian readers of the book will easily identify with the traits and experiences of some of the characters. Of particular mention is the role of the odar or “foreigner” in the story. In Rise the Euphrates, Casard has constant battles with her daughter Araxie over her relationship with an odar man whom she marries to Casard’s disappointment. Casard’s message is one that many Armenian parents try to, sometimes infuriatingly, impart on their children which is the importance of being connected with other Armenians. It’s nuggets of familiarity like this that make Rise the Euphrates such an interesting read.
But does the book have much significance now, eighteen years on? Other than the distinctly Armenian traits which also include overbearing yet loving families, rigid communities and the weight of history, the significance is self-evident. Politically speaking, little has changed since the book the was published. The Armenian Genocide is still unrecognized in many countries, most significantly in the US and Turkey, and remains a continual thorn in the side of the Armenian psyche. However the book does appear to have paved the way for other Armenian-American books. Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate (1997) and Kricorian’s Zabelle (1999) were all published after Euphrates and the three of those books mark a small burst of highly valued literary works by Armenian Americans grappling with the topic of Genocide.
What Carol Edgarian achieved in 1994 was truly remarkable. She managed to do what most aspiring writers never accomplish and at such a young age created a best-seller. I won’t lie, as I said the book is not without its flaws. But find me a book that isn’t. It is a truly good read and the greatest praise I can give though is that “Rise the Euphrates” is as important today as it was eighteen years ago.
Carol Edgarian’s Rise the Euphrates is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.