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The complications of parenthood make for rich novelistic themes. Elliot Ackerman mines them judiciously in his new novel, Red Dress in Black and White, as he did in an earlier book, Waiting for Eden. In both novels, men deal with attenuated paternity. In the newest one, women also cope with modified maternity. But parenthood and parental love prevail in each book.
Red Dress in Black and White charts the entanglements of four adults, three of them expatriates in Turkey. The novel’s sections alternate kaleidoscopically between past and present, with prose that is spare and vivid, well suited to its cool, at times even cold, rendering of what makes these people tick. And what that is, the reader cannot accurately judge until having finished the book.
Ackerman’s novels reference wider political realities: In Waiting for Eden, it’s America’s wars in the Middle East, and in Red Dress in Black and White, it’s the massive Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013. The novel skims over the origins of these protests, using them to advance the plot. Ackerman also reflects on the Gezi Park protests’ impact on individuals. “That morning, she had been a woman … on her way to work, nothing more, and now blood spilled from a gash on her head … Whatever dignity had been taken away from her, she didn’t seem to understand how to recover, so she appeared determined to return to the spot where it had been taken, to go back to Gezi Park, as if she might reclaim it there.”
The novel follows the shaky marriage of Turkish man Murat Yasar and his American wife Catherine, and her ambivalent affair with an American photographer, Peter. At one point, she wonders about her own moral hollowness, and the reader can’t help but concur. Her lack of a moral center is carefully depicted; she seems to be a mass of rather selfish impulses. But only she truly knows this, while others, exasperated with her, merely detect hints of it. The American cultural attache, Kristin, uses Catherine’s self-centeredness for her own purposes, and for much of the novel Kristin appears to be a clever manipulator. But her personal motives are masterfully revealed in the end, lending her a depth that a mere CIA operative would otherwise lack.
The husband, Murat Yasar, is perhaps the most complex and interesting of Ackerman’s characters here. A real estate developer who previously lived in the U.S., Murat is aware of his wife’s infidelity, and he lets her roam, for his own complicated reasons. But he monitors the situation closely. His wife travels in fashionable leftish circles, and he is at pains to accompany her. “Murat had spent many evenings perched silently next to his wife at such tables. These were her people … and he thought it made good sense to keep tabs on those who might undermine both his business interests and, as he began to suspect, his personal interests.”
Regarding her husband’s strength, Catherine highlights one of the novel’s themes—“But his is a different type of strength: it’s the strength of one who is struggling not to drown.” Murat’s overbearing father taught him to swim, and the experience was traumatic. Like the rest of this paternal influence, it warped him to the core. “This was how he had been taught to swim, by nearly drowning, over and over.” Now, as an adult and a powerful, politically connected businessman, Murat again drowns—in debt. He reacts as he did when learning to swim: “The stroke Murat had chosen didn’t have a name or, perhaps it could have been called panic.”
Peter also faces failure in his career. His pictures have not been shown, his artistic ambitions have stalled, and he is half-heartedly involved with another man’s wife. Catherine has no career, having failed at and abandoned her dream of being a dancer years earlier. The only one here in control of her fate is Kristin, not surprisingly, given her ambiguous occupation as cultural attache. Her choices, shadowy and concealed, direct the others. But in the end and in retrospect, it is her personal life, not her occupation, that becomes the heart and soul of the story.