“Red Dress in Black & White,” by Elliot Ackerman (Alfred A. Knopf)
If you know your Bosphorus from phosphorus and Gezi Park means something to you, you’ll probably love Elliot Ackerman’s new novel. If the strait that separates the European and Asian parts of Turkey and the 2013 demonstrations against urban development in Istanbul drive you to Google, you might not appreciate the novel as much at first, but don’t be afraid to give it a try.
Let’s start with the characters: First there’s Catherine, an expat married to an influential Turkish real estate developer named Murat. Catherine and Murat have an adopted son, William, whose lineage is one of the book’s slowly revealed mysteries. And Catherine has a lover, Peter, who Ackerman imagines snapping the real-life famous photo referenced in the book’s title during the Gezi Park protests. Finally, there’s Kristin, an employee at the U.S. consulate who does much more than facilitate naturalization paperwork. She’s not quite CIA, but plays the roll of chess master, whose job Ackerman describes as keeping “each side in a state of tension — which is to say, equilibrium — with the other.”
The central plot of the novel takes place in Istanbul over the course of a single day in November 2013, as Catherine decides to leave Murat and return to America with their son. Ackerman uses that day to frame the rest of the novel — flashing back in alternating chapters to fill in the character’s stories and revel their connections to each other. The time hopping can be jarring at times, but a close reader is rewarded for his attention.
Turkey is the real star of the book. Ackerman, a former Marine who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, loves the setting and his descriptions are some of the best-written lines of the book. Here’s sunset in Gezi Park at the height of the protests: “The wide boulevard gleamed in the fading light, curving in and out like a sheet of iron.” The Bosphorus river is omnipresent: “Dense as mercury” when viewed from Peter’s apartment, the bridge’s “spans and cables are ornamented with turquoise LED lights that reflect off the water, which glides past like black oil.”
The whole book is taut, balanced between order and chaos, just like Istanbul in that summer of 2013. What happens if Catherine leaves the country? Who is William’s birth mother? How far will Murat go to keep his family together? The back half reads much faster than the first, as earlier scenes start to make more sense and Ackerman uncovers the webs that keep his characters together. It’s a book that demands focus, best enjoyed in just a few sittings.