Skylark Farm, By Antonia Arslan, trans. Geoffrey Brock

Where memory becomes legend

It is 1915, and Sempad the prosperous pharmacist and his family are excitedly making preparations for his brother Yerwant's visit after decades abroad. The Pharmacie Hayastane, named after the lost homeland of the Armenians, is a "beacon of prog-ress and civilisation" in their little Anatolian town. The Arslanian family are busy putting the finishing touches to Skylark Farm, their new country house, with tennis and croquet lawns and rose-covered pergolas, while in Italy Yerwant dreams of building a villa nearby where he can retire.

This is a bucolic paradise, yet from the first we know that disaster looms; most of the family will perish. The reader has already met little Henriette, three in 1915, as an old lady accompanying the author to her first name-day church service in Italy. Arslan's first novel is also a family memoir, and bears witness to the Armenian massacre that wiped out so many of her forebears in Turkey.

Her imagined history is frequently mystical. Some have had premonitions, "smelled blood in the air, caught the scent of evil" or had visions of the archangel surrounded by evil fire. The paterfamilias, Hamparzum, sees the horsemen of the Apocalypse as his toddler grandson feeds him grapes on his deathbed. He entrusts the child to the Virgin as he dies.

The atrocities they suffer are hard to read, both because of the horrific events and Arslan's purple prose. Leslie is "flung against the wall, where his small round head smashes like a ripe coconut, spraying blood and brain across the delicate floral designs." Carnage becomes religious kitsch, as when Hripsime sees her baby skewered on a bayonet, "the joyous soul of her little Vartan hesitantly trying out his new wings".

Leaving aside literary quality, Arslan's novel raises compelling questions about the traumatic historical events that shaped our inherited identity – here, where memory becomes third-generation legend. The Armenian massacres are said to have served as a model for Hitler's subjugation of Poland. Here the collective memory of the Holocaust serves as the model for imagining the Armenian genocide. Arslan inappropriately attributes Nazi ideologies to the Ottomans. Setrak the baker becomes a sub-human collaborator with the Kurdish guards. Arslan calls him "a capo": I read this to mean kapo, a term borrowed from Nazi concentration camps. This was the only moment Geoffrey Brock's translation offered anything less than lucid clarity.

The narrative has echoes of Schindler's Ark. Ismene, a wily Greek and Nazim, a Turkish beggar, save the survivors. Nazim is no Schindler, though, compelled by greed as much as remorse. There's little hope for redemption or reconciliation here, in the face of an inherited, implacable grief.

Atlantic £12.99 (275pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935