Title: The Gendarme
Author: Mark T. Mustian
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing
First line: I awake in a whispering ambulance.
Emmett Conn is a family man, a World War I veteran, and a man with a strong work ethic. He is also a man missing part of his past. As a Turk, he fought against the British in WW I, but ended up in a British hospital with head injuries so extensive he wasn’t immediately recognized as an enemy soldier. He has no memory of his life before the hospital. After falling in love with his American nurse, Carol, he marries her and follows her to the US, starting a new life as a husband and father and good citizen.
When a brain tumor hits Emmett as an elderly widower, it brings with it memories that at first he doesn’t realize are his own – memories of being a gendarme, herding Armenians out of Turkey, participating in the horrific persecution and genocide of the Armenian people during WW I. As his memories become clearer and more insistent, Emmett must face up to the truth of his past – and the question of what happened to Araxie, the young Armenia girl with whom he formed an attachment. Can he live with the truth of who he was and what he did?
Before reading The Gendarme, I had never heard the story of the Armenian genocide. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read, but it comes with the burden of discovering new-to-me atrocities that humans have perpetrated on one another throughout the ages. I am continually astounded by the depth of evil that resides in the human heart – and it is only in knowing that humans are also capable of great sacrifice and compassion and love that I find comfort.
Emmett is a perplexing character – there is such a dichotomy between the man he was as a gendarme in Turkey and the man he became in the United States. He prided himself on being a good husband, father, and provider, a hard worker and a moral citizen. His head injury during the war caused extreme memory loss, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder if, subconsciously, he was trying to atone for the terrible things he did as a gendarme. His reaction to the uncovering of his memories was intriguing – at first, he did not want to admit that they were memories, wanting to believe that these acts had been committed by someone else. He is left to wrestle with the most basic of questions: what kind of man is he?
Mustian’s first novel is astounding in both the beauty of the writing and the depth of story and character. He has brought to life an episode from history and yet done it the hard way – by writing from the perspective of perpetrator rather than victim, and yet still giving the reader a sympathetic character. And in the midst of the haunting story, he deals with issues like guilt, atonement, and forgiveness. Highly recommended.