'Orhan's Inheritance' cleverly intertwines first love, ancient betrayal, secrets, and war crimes

A debut novel links Turkish and Armenian families as it balances mistakes made with redemption earned.

Orhan’s Inheritance By Aline Ohanesian Algonquin, 352 pp., $25.95

At age 8, Aline Ohanesian’s great-grandmother interrupted her seventh viewing of “The Sound of Music” with a promise: “I have a story, too.” That was the first and last time Ohanesian heard about her Nene’s 1915 escape from Turkey during the Armenian genocide – the still-contested claim that between 1 million and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were annihilated by the Ottoman government in what is now Turkey. Now, more than a quarter century later, Nene’s escape comes to life once again in Orhan’s Inheritance, Ohanesian’s irresistible debut novel about first love, ancient betrayal, secrets within secrets, missing parents, war crimes, and ambiguous morality.

As the book opens, 93-year-old Turkish patriarch Kemal Türkoğlu is found dead, “steeping in an indigo dye two shades darker than the summer sky.” His grandson, Orhan, rushes from Istanbul to Karod, a remote village in the interior of Turkey, for the reading of the will. Orhan has long been estranged from his father, Mustafa; only Auntie Fatma welcomes him, albeit silently.

Kemal’s will splinters the family further – contrary to Turkish inheritance law, Kemal has bypassed his son Mustafa and left the family textile business to Orhan. The family home, however, is bequeathed to a Ms. Seda Melkonian – a woman living in Los Angeles utterly unknown to the family. Orhan is immediately dispatched to California to reclaim the family estate. Fatma warns him to be careful: “You know what the trees said when the axe came to the forest?... The handle is one of us.” Orhan asks, “Am I the tree or the axe?,” but Fatma can only reply, “Who knows?”

Orhan finds Seda, an octogenarian, living quietly in the Ararat Home for the Aging among fellow Armenians. Her devoted activist/historian niece Ani visits once a week. She’s in the midst of chronicling the residents’ stories, and yet Seda has been the least forthcoming about her past. When Orhan appears, Seda is immediately willing to sign the legal papers he presents, if only to have him gone. But Orhan returns again and again, determined to learn her story. And he does ... but at what cost?

Presented in two narratives set generations apart – 1990 when Kemal dies and 1915 when the Armenian genocide begins – Ohanesian intertwines the histories of two families made enemies by political, religious, and ethnic borders. She inserts an impossible love story that haunts both sides. In this multigenerational page turner of an epic saga, Ohanesian bears witness to atrocities even as her characters’ descendants work toward redemption. Lest you think too soon that you’ve figured things out, Ohanesian has twists and turns to surprise. In young Orhan’s own experiences of exile and return, she reminds us – literally – that life and history are never captured in black and white.

“Orhan’s Inheritance” isn’t a perfect novel. The father/son estrangements are insufficiently developed, the stories of escape are too long, and the repeated foreshadowing is more cloying than illuminating. Yet all that aside, “Inheritance” gracefully redeems itself with details of history almost lost, and the tenacious, crucial attempts at reclamation and preservation. “All of life ... is a story within a story,” Orhan muses. “[H]ow we choose to listen and which words we choose to speak makes all the difference.”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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