In the past, I have mentioned the skills of persuasion possessed by Lydia Hirt of Amy Einhorn/Putnam Books. Despite my steadfast resolution to read what I have and stop accepting review copies, she manages to find books that I can't pass up, and The Gendarme was one of them. The book was published under the Amy Einhorn imprint, and rarely do these people miss their mark. (OK, so I also loved the cover.) God love her, she told me to read it and review it whenever I had time, but of course I think she probably knew I wouldn't be able to let this one sit on my nightstand for long.
Emmett Conn is a 92-year-old widower who has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Throughout his adult life, he has suffered from memory loss as a result of injuries sustained in WWI. It is only since the onset of the tumor does he experience flashbacks to a time before, when he served as a Turkish Gendarme, escorting the Armenians on their death march into Syria. His real name was Ahmet Khan.
Amidst the atrocities of theft, murder, and rape of the Armenians under his care, Ahmet meets a beautiful young Armenian girl named Araxie, and immediately becomes obsessed with her. Instead of raping her, he becomes protective of her, and they forge a unique bond and friendship. They speak of escaping to America, of their future careers, of children.
These recollections dredge up more emotions that Emmett can handle. How could he have possibly taken part in such horrible acts? Are these his memories, or someone else's? What happened to Araxie? Is she still alive? As he progresses back through his memories, remembering his vitality and youth, he is also burdened with a worn out body, his strained relationships with his daughters, and his wish to be closer to his grandchild.
I was hoping that as I summarized the plot of the novel, I would come to a definitive conclusion on my feelings. Did I love this book? I don't know, so I am going to bat around my thoughts out loud.
The book presented a graphic and sickening fate of the Armenians at the turn of the century, a real piece of history that I knew very little about. This is some brutality that easily matches the concentration camps in WWII. Mustian doesn't mince words, and at times, my stomach turned and I had to put the book down and think about butterflies and kittens.
The connection between Ahmet and Araxie transcended the typical relationship, almost to a spiritual level. Ahmet's attitude was almost fatherly, and physically as chaste, but couldn't stand not being near her. The moment that Ahmet realizes that the fates, the circumstances, the politics, whatever, did not intend on the two of them to be together, I felt my heart break.
Mustian also tackles the hardship of aging: wanting to just die and get it over with, of feeling like a burden to everyone, of being confused about what is happening to the body and mind, of what it feels like to be left in a care facility by your loved ones.
But something was missing. While the events transpiring around Ahmet/Emmett were emotional, there was very little emotion in the prose. I kept thinking of the word "stoic", and questioning whether this was purposeful. Ahmet/Emmett WAS a stoic man, so perhaps this was reflective of his personality. He still came across to me as two-dimensional.
Nevertheless, this is one book I shan't be forgetting soon, and is well worth your reading time.
4 out of 5 stars