By Olya Yordanyan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BOSTON — More than 1,5 million Armenian perished from 1915 to 1923 in the Ottoman Empire. That number is so large that it is almost abstract; it is only when stories of survivors are told, resonating with suffering and hope, that they can put a picture with the history.
Eve Makis’ The Spice Box Letters is a flawlessly and cinematically written historical fiction depicting the tragedy of an Armenian family: siblings Mariam and Gabriel Arakelian, were orphaned and separated during the Genocide. Makis magnificently distills the stories of thousands of children orphaned during the Genocide and scattered around the world with the characters of Gabriel and Mariam.
The novel not only shows the difficulties of people who lost their families during the Genocide and their trauma, but also the love and strength they find to continue living.
Their story starts in 1915 in the city of Caesaria — Kayseri in modern Turkey. The Arakelians lived a happy life in a full family, but that perfect world abruptly collapsed with their father’s arrest and execution, and the deportation of the rest of the family. The deportation split the family: Mariam, who saw soldiers killing her older brother Tovmas, pretended to be dead and eventually escaped thinking Gabriel was also killed.
“When I has finished my story, I felt a longing for home,” Mariam wrote in her diary, describing days spent in England with Levon, who helped her escape and survive. “The fairy tale released a flood of memories and set me thinking about the afterlife. I wondered if people aged in heaven. Would Gabriel be a curly-haired boy with a toothy smile for all eternity? If heaven were as big as England, how would I ever find him? And how would my mother find me set adrift in an ocean of green?”
Gabriel also thought her sister was dead, but strongly believed his mother was alive. He lived with this piece of hope
We learn about Mariam’s journey of deportation, adoption and life in England from her diary and letters found in a spice box after her death. Mariam refused to talk about the past while alive, but wrote instead in Armenian, giving herself the freedom of sharing her innermost feelings and secrets. Mariam’s granddaughter, Katerina, a young English journalist, takes it upon herself to translate the diary. And while on a vacation in Larnaca, Cyprus, Katerina by chance meets Ara, an Armenian man, who agrees to translate the diary. Little did she know that the journey of solving the puzzle of her late grandmother’s past would become a journey to exploring her Armenian heritage and change her life.
The stories of Katarina and Anahit, the granddaughters of Mariam and Gabriel, are told in parallel. Living in Nicosia, Gabriel, a grouchy man in his 70s, is concerned about maintaining his Armenian identity, because Anahit is in love with a Greek man and wants to marry him.
Makis’ narration is full of details about the historical events and life in Cyprus in the 20th century — the island under the British rule, the first Independence Day, the unrest of December 1963 in Nicosia, etc. These historical glimpses enrich the plot, making the story more genuine.
The book is also full of descriptions of Armenian cuisine and lifestyle. Some of the heroes overcome their homesickness through memories of flavors and scents of food and spices that permanently stamped in their minds.