The novel, set primarily in Turkey, opens with a prologue set in 1961 after the Turkish military has crushed the new democracy. The main character, Mary, finds her anger at this event driving her to write a memoir of the earlier 1923 Turkish nationalist resistance movement that culminated with the creation of the Republic of Turkey. Mary lost her husband in WWI—a grief that we are told is “too profound to comprehend”—and she finds her home in New York meaningless, so she grants her sister Connie’s request to join her in Istanbul, where Connie’s husband works as a diplomat.
I found the prologue with its generalizations about the Great War and Mary’s trip to Istanbul via her husband’s grave in France a fairly slow entry into the book, although it places the action of the novel in its larger historical framework. Eventually, Mary has a moment of action when a young Turkish man running from the British police begs her to hide the papers he is carrying. In that split second, though she has no idea what the papers are or why the police are chasing the man, she agrees, the man is shot dead, and with this impulsive but brave act she becomes entwined in the resistance movement, which the Americans support, if somewhat secretly, and which the other allied forces oppose, primarily because to keep Turkey for themselves. Gradually Mary is drawn into friendships with key people in the resistance, but she’s more observer than participant. As a result the plot has an indirect, passive quality to it. The descriptions of the Turkish landscape and people are vivid and reflect the author’s deep love and knowledge of this land and its history.