(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 14, 2008)
In the late 1960s in Turkey, there were often open confrontations between Leftist student groups and the military. The military carried out a coup in March 1971 and many members of these student Leftist groups were arrested and quite a few, tortured. It is this real life event that forms the basis for Maureen Freely's novel, Enlightenment.
Freely, who was born in the United States and brought up in Turkey, seems to mirror one of the principal characters of the novel, a woman called Jeannie Wakefield. Jeannie is the daughter of a CIA spy, William Wakefield, and gets caught up in a Maoist cell consisting of the sons and daughters of Turkey's leading diplomats and industrialists. Jeannie also falls in love with an enigmatic young Turkish American, Sinan Sinanoglu, and eventually bears his son, Emre.
As the novel opens, Sinan has been arrested and detained in the United States on charges of terrorism. Sinan, now a documentary film maker, had been touring the world promoting his latest work, when the arrest takes place. What's worse, the child Emre, who was traveling with Sinan at the time, has been taken into foster care. His wife Jeannie Wakefield, back in Turkey, is desperate to shine some light on her husband's plight and she invites an old journalist friend to look into the matter. It is through this journalist's voice (her name is merely, M) that the story mostly unfolds.
One of the first pieces of evidence that M comes across is a long letter that Jeannie has left behind. As it happens, an incident called the Trunk Murder that happened more than 30 years ago, continues to plague the collective consciousness of Jeannie and her many college friends: Suna, Haluk, Chloe and a couple others. The Trunk Murder was a brutal murder carried out shortly in the aftermath of the 1971 coup where a group of young students cut up their American teacher and mentor and stuffed the parts in a car trunk. The problem is, even though Jeannie believes that the murder did take place, nobody is really sure whom the finger of blame points to.
Did the Trunk Murder really take place? Who was the mentor the kids murdered? What was William Wakefield's role in all of this? These are the central questions that Freely takes her time answering in Enlightenment. Freely, who translates Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's work, does a wonderful job in painting the innocent idealism of the young college kids. The kids lived in a Turkey where the secular values of the West were often complemented by centuries of homegrown etiquette. “Wherever we lived as children, we were guests. Wherever we went, we were ambassadors for a country we knew only by hearsay,” she writes of the American kids growing up in Turkey. “We grew up knowing no one whose parents were not teachers, missionaries, soldiers, diplomats, agricultural experts, oil company executives, drug enforcement agents or spies. Then, at eighteen, we flew “home,” to colleges that left the same imprint on us that they did on you. But what they taught us about the world was at odds with what we'd seen with our own eyes.”
Freely also paints a beautiful description of Turkey. The Bosphorus, the small markets, all come alive in the book. Having visited Turkey often, Freely also details the changes in modern day Turkey including in the attitude of the country's residents. “No one's afraid of the Communists now—with sixty percent of the population under thirty, it's a dwindling minority that can even remember fearing them. Now it's Islamists they obsess about,” Freely writes. “And when Islamists speak, they express their anti-western sentiments in much the same language as Sinan and Suna did when I first met them. The tables have turned, and then turned again.”
The one drawback to the book is just how long and winded the story gets in getting to solve its essential mystery. Just when one character gets ready to tell all, Freely frustratingly lets it dangle like a cliffhanger. By the time you finally reach the end, you have all but given up in ever knowing what happened. Ironically, one of the book's chapter's titles is “How to Bury a Story.” With the many obfuscations and frustrating distractions that Freely sets out, one would conclude that she has learned at least this lesson very well. The book could be a good 100 pages shorter without losing any of its core.
Interestingly enough, because of this negative, Enlightenment succeeds not as a mystery, but as an incisive portrait of a generation without any moorings, with high ideals yet desperate for mentorship in any form. “Whatever ties we have are tenuous. If we have anything in common, it is shifting sands. It is rootlessness,” one of the characters says. Freely beautifully shows just how complex and ultimately dangerous, such rootlessness can be. Thirty years on, the young band of idealists continues to search for solid ground.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 readers
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Mother's Helper (1979)
- Life of the Party (1985)
- The Stork Club (1991)
- Under the Vulcania (1994)
- The Other Rebecca (1996)
- Enlightenment (2008)
- Pandora's Clock: Understanding Our Fertility (1993)
- What About Us? An Open Letter the Mothers that Feminism Forgot (1996)
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About the Author:
Maureen Freely was born in in 1952 in Neptune, New Jersey but grew up in Istabul, Turkey. She is a graduate of Robert College of Istanbul.
She has taught creative writing at the Universities of Florida, Texas and Oxford and currently teaches at the University of Warwick. She is a freelance journalist writing for, amongst others, The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, and The Independent on Sunday.
She is also the English translator of Orhan Pamuk's recent books. She works closely with Pamuk since her translations often serve as the basis for other languages.
She lives in England and is the mother of 4 children and 2 step-children.