RED DRESS IN BLACK AND WHITE
By Elliot Ackerman
Elliot Ackerman, who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, is known for writing novels set at the burning edges of wars. The beautifully spare “Waiting for Eden” is told by a ghost, the dead comrade of a wounded soldier. An Iraqi-American trying to enter Syria for “his second war” is the focus of “Dark at the Crossing” (a National Book Award finalist), and a young Afghan man guides the reader in Ackerman’s first book, “Green on Blue.” Having worked so impressively at overturning the conventions of war fiction, Ackerman has now written a novel without a single soldier in it.
Who can blame him? He’s decided on a different sort of drama, a territory of intrigue and tricks, entirely absorbing, with other sources of suspense. It’s set in the great city of Istanbul. “Before the protests at Gezi Park, his unfaithful wife had been the largest of his problems.” So thinks Murat, a debt-ridden Turkish real estate developer, early in the book. “He longs for such simple concerns. But the riots, the politics, they have corrupted a system that was once reliably corrupt. A construction license can no longer be bought.” The man’s balance of troubles — a painful marriage eclipsed by a whole country’s instability — points to elements of the plot to come. We will read about a wife who wants to leave her husband, but geopolitics and a “web of interests and counterinterests” will have everything to do with the outcome.
Catherine is Murat’s attractive American wife, a trained dancer who’s now a museum trustee and art patron, and they have a 7-year-old son, William. Their marriage has not been much of a romance for some time, and an affair emboldens Catherine to decide to return to the United States with her son. She plans to go with her lover, Peter, an American photographer trying to make a career in Istanbul, who hasn’t quite expected this.
Key to all action is a character named Kristin, who works out of the American Embassy’s office of Cultural Affairs and seems to have a finger in every pie. She has been Catherine’s confidential friend, has backed funding for Peter’s art and has cultivated Murat as an invaluable source of “discreet, nonpublic information” about “the real estate market, where many of the country’s elites allocated their wealth.”
Ackerman’s rich knowledge of Turkey, where he was based as a journalist for a number of years, is evident on every page. The book’s stunning scenes of the protests in Gezi Park, where the police used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets on demonstrators, are superbly written and give the book its title. In (actual) news photos a woman with black hair, wearing a red dress, carrying a white bag, was seen attacked by the police — an image of utter clarity, designed by chance. It’s an image viewed with extra nuances in the novel.
Turkey, for all its violent complexities and hostile factions, is not a country at war, and readers may find less at stake in this novel than in Ackerman’s prior fiction. All its characters, despite their vividness and their claims on our sympathy, are carried by a mighty undertow of self-interest. What lasts is the book’s emphasis on hidden machinations of power — there’s an unwinding subplot featuring the diplomat Kristin’s magisterial cleverness, her ceaseless web of highly effective invisible acts. This reminder of unseen forces feels like the book’s underlying ambition and provides the resonance, the heightening of thought, that ends the book — a musing on America’s overseas intrusions, on the trove of details deemed essential to keeping things in line, and on how such powers might seep into even the most intimate of relations.