In ‘Red Dress in Black and White’, viral photo at Turkish protest sets a plot in motion

Porter Shreve

THE WASHINGTON POST – In May 2013, protesters gathered in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to stop a development project that threatened to pave over one of the few remaining green spaces in the city.

Riot police fired tear gas, and one protester, in a red dress, was photographed at the front of the line. Her “vulnerability in this tense context”, as the Guardian reported, helped the picture go viral and the woman become a symbol of defiance. National Book Award finalist and Washington DC native Elliot Ackerman lived in Istanbul during the aftermath, and the events at Gezi Park form the linchpin of his shrewd, intricately plotted fourth novel, Red Dress in Black and White.

The book follows four characters, its point of view moving deftly from one to the next every few pages. There’s Peter, an American expat attempting a career shift from photo journalism to art photography, who attended the protest and shot pictures of the woman in the red dress.

There’s another American, Catherine, a trustee at the Istanbul Modern art museum who becomes a champion of Peter’s work and falls into an affair with him. There’s Catherine’s adopted son, William, seven -years-old and caught in the middle of his parents’ escalating rift. And there’s William’s father, Murat, one of the Turkish developers whose projects have helped inflame the civil unrest, “Before the protests at Gezi Park his unfaithful wife had been the largest of his problems. He longs for such simple concerns. But the riots, the politics, they have corrupted a system that was once reliably corrupt.”

Murat’s position gives us every reason to dislike him. He has a Trumpian biography: A second-generation developer who stamps his name on buildings all over the city, he comes from wealth and a legacy of exploitation.

Of his father, it was often said “that he would take the dimes off a dead man’s eyes and return nickels”. He depends on his connections to secure millions in cheap credit from a reckless government on a spending spree, and his pursuit of more and bigger contracts puts his business in danger of collapse. He prioritises work over everything and admitted, “when it comes to his family, he loves the idea of them while, at times, he isn’t certain if he’s capable of actually loving them.”

But Murat becomes the novel’s most interesting, even sympathetic, character. In the 24-hour period that makes up the present action, Catherine leaves him, whisking William away to Peter’s apartment in the hope of convincing him to flee the country and go back to the United States (US) with her.

We come to learn details about Murat that humanise him: how when he first lived with Catherine he worked on his English by watching Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood.

He gave up his dream and talent as an architect out of fear of his father. In order to develop Murat and other focal characters within a propulsive novel that plays out in a day, Ackerman makes the risky choice of interrupting the plot frequently with scene-driven sections that take place in the past.

We see Catherine trying to persuade the Istanbul Modern’s Curatorial Director Deniz to show Peter’s work. We go further back and learn the surprising link between Deniz, Catherine and William.

We meet Kristin, an American diplomat in Cultural Affairs, whose money, connections and double dealing thicken the plot. And we return again and again to that day at Gezi Park with the woman in the red dress and white tote bag, the colours of the Turkish flag.

With all the intersecting perspectives, past-action leaps, socio- and geopolitical intrigue, the novel can feel a bit labyrinthine.