Five problematic characters with five thoroughly different agendas propel a 7-year-old boy’s life in anxious directions in Elliot Ackerman’s splendidly gnarly new novel, “Red Dress in Black and White.”
Dress in Black and White,” Set in Istanbul in the years just before and after the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests in Turkey, the book is cunning, atmospheric and filled with surprises in ways that call to mind the fiction of Joseph Conrad and John le Carré. Partly an ethical Rorschach test and partly a thriller in the vein of “The Year of Living Dangerously,” it’s the best novel yet from Ackerman, a National Book Award finalist (“Dark at the Crossing,” “Waiting for Eden”).
The book opens as Catherine Yaşar, the American wife of Turkish real estate mogul, takes her young son William to a late-night exhibit of Gezi Park protest photographs in the private home of Deniz, a Turkish curator of “omnivorous proclivities.” The photographs, depicting “luminaries” of Istanbul’s “police-brawling gay and gender-fluid community,” were taken by Catherine’s American lover, Peter. But Peter is uncomfortable with Catherine bringing her second grader to see the show. Shouldn’t the kid be in bed? And isn’t this pushing his relationship with Catherine deeper than he wants it to go?
Her response: “William needs a figure in his life with a worldview that isn’t as narrow as his father’s.”
In short order, Ackerman fills us in on just how out of whack Catherine’s marriage, love affair and acknowledgment of certain pragmatic realities are. Her husband Murat, who met her while studying in the United States, is well aware of “his limitations as a husband” and is willing to tolerate her extramarital trysts. But he has no intention of letting her destroy his reputation or their family. Unfortunately, he has little idea of how to deal with his wife’s eagerness to burn every bridge she crosses — an impulse he was cognizant of from the start.
“Catherine had no ambition beyond escape,” he realizes once their marriage liberates her from her stultifying family. “And once she made that escape,” he further recognizes, “her ambition to escape endured, captive as her life had become to his.”
Catherine may be the wild card in every life she touches, but she has her own reckless brand of wisdom and she isn’t blind to her own nature. What she sees in herself is unsettling, however. She feels close to Peter, for instance, “not because she loved or admired him, rather because she recognized in him the same desperation she had so often felt. Her closeness with Peter, she realized, was more akin to self-pity.”
Ackerman’s sly portrayal of these paradox-riddled characters grows even more sharply convoluted when it comes to Murat’s dealings with his son.
“With the boy he felt both burdened and unburdened at once,” Ackerman writes of the father and son. “To prepare William for an unkind world, he needed to be firm. But he also needed to equip him with the reservoirs of approval and affection that would sustain him against the same unkind world. His responsibilities as a father conflicted with one another. He could love the boy too much, or he could love the boy not enough. If a tension existed between Murat and his son, it was a reflection of these two conflicting impulses, and Murat believed that this tension, which dogged him, was also the proof that he was a good father. Anything aside from tension was a failure.”
That’s quite a dynamic for a 7-year-old to decipher.
A fifth major character — a cultural affairs official at the American embassy who’s clearly something more than that — has deeper influence on William’s fate than anyone realizes. She’s an elegant, formidable figure whose grip on the adults in William’s life is chillingly exact. She’s downright surgical in getting what she needs from Murat as she exploits his concerns about his son and his anxiety about his rickety real estate investments. She also has mysterious sway over the actions of Deniz, Catherine and Peter.
“Red Dress in Black and White” — the title refers to a news photograph of a woman caught unexpectedly in the midst of the Gezi Park riots — spins you headlong into a world of political unrest and wayward desire. It delivers its shocks and surprises in teasing measures, as it gradually unveils the real relations between the adults in William’s life. The book is vivid, chewy, incisive — and a bit far-fetched by the time its secrets are revealed.
It’s also a ton of tangled fun.
Final note: It isn’t often that a novelist introduces you to a visual artist who knocks you out. But Ackerman’s mentions of gay, German-born Turkish painter Taner Ceylan sent me straight to Ceylan’s website, where wonders abound.
“Red Dress in Black and White” by Elliot Ackerman, Knopf, 272 pp., $26.95