An Armenian immigrant’s journey from the author of Dreams of Bread and Fire. “Haunting and convincing . . . There’s a fairy-tale quality to the prose” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker).
Zabelle begins in a suburb of Boston with the quiet death of Zabelle Chahasbanian, an elderly widow and grandmother whose history remains vastly unknown to her family. But as the story shifts back in time to Zabelle’s childhood in the waning days of Ottoman Turkey, where she survives the 1915 Armenian genocide and near starvation in the Syrian desert, an unforgettable character begins to emerge. Zabelle’s journey encompasses years in an Istanbul orphanage, a fortuitous adoption by a rich Armenian family, and an arranged marriage to an Armenian grocer who brings her to America where the often comic interactions and battles she wages are forever colored by shadows from the long-lost world of her past.
“Kricorian is able to transform oral history into her own distinctive, accomplished prose. As in Toni Morrison’s work, the act of simple remembering is not enough; Zabelle, like Morrison’s best work, is a lovely and artful piece.” —Time Out New York
Zabelle, the resilient heroine of poet Kricorian's haunting first novel, survives the 1915 Armenian genocide, goes into an orphanage and becomes a cook in a Turkish household before wealthy compatriots marry her off to a hard-working grocer in Watertown, Mass. In the Boston suburbs, Zabelle finds herself battling her old-world mother-in-law (a woman with "a stiff iron brush for a soul"), working in a shirt factory and reconciling herself to a loveless union with a bore. She falls silently in love with a co-worker, but he moves away; when they meet again, he too is unhappily married. In secret, he and Zabelle declare their devotion and exchange one chaste kiss. Just when the sweet sorrow of Zabelle's tale begins to cloy, her spirited childhood friend Arsinee resurfaces and lends some spice to the mix. Drawn together by their exile, the women relish each other's company, sharing disappointments and joys. Much to Zabelle's disgust, her beloved firstborn grows up to be a self-righteous prig who sheds his name, telltale nose and heritage in a quest for televangelical fame. Toward the novel's conclusion, there is a rollicking episode in which the two women attempt, through witchcraft, to banish a mother-in-law's spirit, and hilarity erupts when two families, brought together by a wedding, try to bridge a cultural divide as wide as an ocean. Armenian phrases abound (Vay babum! appears to be a synonym for Holy Toledo!), prompting one to yearn for a glossary, but the lasting impressions of this bittersweet story linger in the echoes of its spare, elegant prose.