Every once in a while I stumble across a book that is nothing at all like what I expect. In some cases, this is an unpleasant thing. But sometimes, as in the case of Aline Ohanesian’s upcoming debut novel Orhan’s Inheritance, it was a very nice surprise. I don’t know whether I misread one of the descriptions for the book or if I simply clicked the wrong button somewhere along the way, but what I thought to be the basic plot of the novel was quite far removed from the actual plot. The actual plot was deeper, more serious, beautiful, and tragic than what I was expecting. It brought to my attention a history from a time and place that I hadn’t been familiar with previously but which now I feel inclined to explore.
When Orhan’s grandfather dies in Turkey in 1990, to the disgust of his father but the surprise of few, the family business was left to Orhan. To the surprise of all, the family house has been left to a woman they’ve never heard of. Given the nation’s laws for inheritance, Orhan and his aunt agree that the best way to keep his father from contesting the will is to get this mysterious woman to sell them back the house. But beyond the matter of the house, Orhan travels to Los Angeles seeking Seda for answers. Who is this woman? How did she know his grandfather? And why would he leave the house to her? Seda’s tale goes back to the time when she and Kemal (Orhan’s grandfather) were children in the early 1910’s and the early days of World War I saw the government of Turkey turning against the Armenians, Christians, and Kurds within its borders, people like Seda and her family.
There is so much to talk about with a book like Orhan’s Inheritance. As a history nerd, I’m always enchanted when I find stories about a facet of history that I haven’t heard before and the targeting of Armenians and Christians in Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire is one of them. I was never as invested in World War I and its beginnings (probably because so little time was spent on it in my American public school education; after all, the US joined the game pretty late and we always focused on Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan and the League of Nations). The events of the novel set in 1990 focus on not so much the correction as the expansion of history and the push to have previously silenced voices be heard. But it is not presented in a straightforward way; Ohanesian skillfully shows not only why so many of those previously silenced need to be heard but the reasons why some would rather put their painful pasts behind them.
History and one’s past threaten more than one character’s sense of identity. The layers of identity are stripped away as Orhan finds he understands more than just the events Seda relates and searches for himself as well. He has himself tried to deny parts of who he has been and what his country did to him to spare himself the pain that comes with remembering. Juxtaposed against the likes of Seda’s niece, Ani, who devotes herself to speaking up and bringing attention to the atrocities her family father and their people survived, the discussion is engaging and far from decided, landing somewhere in the balance between remembering the past for those who didn’t make it and letting your past drag you backwards away from your future.
Most novels, whether related in the first or third person are presented using the past tense. It’s pretty much a default it is done so often. But Orhan’s Inheritance is written in the present tense, even the passages of the novel set during WWI. It took some getting used to but eventually I stopped noticing it. Looking back at what the novel and its characters have to say about the past, present, and future, the decision to write the book in present tense not only makes complete sense, but might be my favorite thing about the book. The events in the novel’s concluding chapters can be a bit too neatly wrapped up given the harsh realities of the rest presented in the rest of the novel, but I really hope that this proves to be the first of many novels from Aline Ohanesian.
Orhan’s Inheritance will be available in stores on April 7, 2015.