Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Maureen Freely/ENLIGHTENMENT

Nothing about my first glance at Maureen Freely's novel Enlightenment threatened disillusion. The cover photo depicts a skyline clearly nowhere in America, a jumble of old and new architecture, street lights, and billboards, with birds fluttering up everywhere at once, from nowhere in particular; behind the title is positioned, where it's hard to ignore, a striking graphic: the star and crescent, iconic symbol of (among many other institutions) the country of Turkey. The blurbs and jacket copy promised an exotic experience: "quietly stunning"; "riveting"; "brave and unflinching"; "gripping and critically acclaimed"...

I enjoyed the book for a while.

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Here's the story in its general form:

The plot spans the last three decades of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st. An American woman, Jeannie Wakefield, has engaged a journalist friend -- known only as M -- to help her uncover the truth about her husband Sinan, a US-born Turkish documentary filmmaker who has disappeared. Jeannie herself disappears, leaving M (by her own admission, a specialist in stories about mothers and babies) to assemble on her own the shadowy international jigsaw puzzle.

By far most of the action takes place in Turkey, especially Istanbul. Jeannie's father William is stationed there, pretty clearly as a US intelligence professional -- a "spy," although one of the aloof, sit-and-observe, John le Carré variety rather than the rough-and-tumble Ian Fleming sort. And it is there, in the 1970s, that Jeannie falls in with a leftist cadre of young (but mostly upper-class) Turkish intellectuals and American expats, including the young Sinan.

Central to the plot is the so-called "trunk murder" of 1971, in which the group's mentor -- an American named Dutch Harding -- was brutally killed and then disposed of in a large wicker trunk. And yet this murder is something of a Hitchcockian McGuffin: it perhaps did and did not happen; the victim may have been Dutch Harding, or someone else, or no one at all; the killer may have been one or more of the students, or perhaps someone in the employ of the Turkish government and/or American intelligence service. As the years and decades pass, Jeannie fitfully tries to learn the truth of the trunk murder. No one tells the story consistently, unambiguously. She drifts out of and back into contact with the others of the group, especially Sinan, whom she eventually marries and has a son with... but she can't get a straight answer even from him.

And then comes 9/11, and the over-reaction by the US Department of Homeland Security which sends anyone "foreign" remotely associated with terrorism straight into the shadowy world of Guantanamo Bay and extreme rendition... anyone like, say, Sinan, with his leftist past. Denounced by old enemies in the Turkish "deep state," Sinan simply disappears into the maw of US security. Their son is taken from Jeannie and placed in foster care. Enter M, and her investigation.

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Now, all of this sounds promising enough. Yet Enlightenment, to my taste, not only failed to deliver on the promises of the plot; it failed as well to depict convincingly the characters and their interrelationships, and it even failed to bring Istanbul to life for me. And, in a coup de grace for the things I like to find in fiction if I can find nothing else, it's sylistically, well, uninspired.

Let's tackle the Istanbul setting as an example.

I love reading about other countries (although I've been overseas exactly once, for barely a week). Having read a description of a city street down which I have never walked, and probably never will, I love to close my eyes and see it for myself -- the shops and the faces and the windows and flags and trees and mountains -- to feel for myself the pavement under my bare feet and the fabric between my fingertips, to hear the wind blowing through the leaves and the voices of children and their parents in a marketplace.

But Maureen Freely never managed to pull off any of that for me in Enlightenment. She is not the first novelist to namedrop streets and landmarks -- think of all the writers who've used phrases like "the Twelfth Arrondissement" as glib summations of everything important about a setting. Freely seems to have forgotten that the reader may not see what she herself sees upon encountering a proper noun like, say, Belek. ("Oh yes, Belek. I remember it well. No need to describe it!") But I can't enjoy reading about a place of which I know nothing if I must constantly run to Wikipedia to pull it together in my mind's eye; eventually I just stopped trying to picture any of the places mentioned. Perhaps a map of Istanbul in the book's front or back matter would have helped.

As for the style, I will say only, with embarrassment, that it took voracious-reader me four damn months to read these fewer than 400 pages. It was very difficult for me to read more than a few pages without getting distracted or, well, nodding off.

I owe it to you to note that I'm apparently in a very small minority among the book's readers. The blurbs on the book jacket do not mislead: they do represent fairly the critical response to the novel. Non-professional reviewers around the Web, by and large, agree with the pros. They pronounce the plot's resolution satisfying, and are enthralled by the magical/luminous/etc. picture of Istanbul which the book paints.

As a junior in high school, I read Silas Marner with much the same sense that I read Enlightenment. Baffled that it had attained the standing of a highly respected classic, I yet made up my mind to finish it. At the book's end, many weeks later, I sighed with huge relief -- and never read anything else by George Eliot.

Please do not be put off by my review, then. There are so many ways in which any given author's sensibility and aesthetic can misalign with any given reader's that it's a wonder we ever fall in love with novels in the first place. Enlightenment, for me -- and perhaps only for me -- turned out to be one of those rare, utterly out-of-whack duds.

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