by Beth Helms
Published by Picador
320 pages, 2008
A Bad Turn
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Dervishes has to be an ironic title. While the 12-year old protagonist, Canada, later remembers having seen dervishes, describing them as isolated figures spinning endlessly in place, drawing a parallel between the lives of the novel’s two main characters and this religious Sufi Muslim practice is totally inaccurate. Superficially, it may look the same: a shallow and self-absorbed mother and her neglected daughter go in circles, ever faster, and getting nowhere. Dervishes, however, spin to achieve religious ecstasy. Wikipedia points out that dervishes as known for their extreme poverty and austerity and are indifferent to material possessions. They are also known as being a source of wisdom, poetry, enlightenment and so on. This bears no relation to the novel’s females.
Living in an enclave of Ankara, Turkey, 12 year-old Canada, and her mother, Grace, live an aimless expatriate life, while Rand, father and husband, mysteriously appears and disappears on secretive government assignments, probably CIA related. Neither they nor we ever know what ominous work he is actually involved in.
When he is home, he drinks too much and talks too little, but Canada shares a far closer bond with him than she does with her mother. Bored and listless, Grace spends her days playing whist, organizing or going to cocktail parties, or shopping and gossiping with rich Turkish wives and other equally bored foreigners. She has little interest in Canada, leaving her to drift the dusty, frequently hostile streets with her friend, Catherine.
By drawing unsympathetic characters, Helms has made her work as a novelist challenging. Readers are bound to ask, who cares? What makes this story work, however, is the authenticity with which the author describes the lives of privileged outsiders in a hostile foreign country. We feel we are getting insider information, and it appears we are. Helms spent her childhood in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and other foreign countries, and her experiences there have helped her shape a credible world in Dervishes. While it’s true that we may not care what happens to Canada and her mother, we are intrigued with these long looks into their lives and the intricate, sensual way in which their world is created. We can smell the dust of a hot Turkish summer afternoon, catch the glances and shrugs of the women at their games, feel the textures of the fabrics they languidly don. Dervishes is like a well-crafted travel story with fictional characters.
With little to do besides lounge by the embassy pool, flirt with houseboys, betray friends and kick the dust, it’s not surprising that Grace is drawn into an affair and that Canada, teetering unsuccessfully, at the threshold of adulthood, also tries to follow through with her attraction to her friend’s houseboy.
The story takes place over eight months in Turkey’s volatile and dangerous mid-1970s, when there was a spread of political violence and revolt in the Kurdish regions of Eastern Turkey. The CIA was operating behind the scenes, partially in response to the Turkish Grey Wolves, a powerful terrorist group responsible for the assassination of some Kurdish leaders. Obviously Helms has chosen this time period for good reason but readers need to be aware of its implications. It wouldn’t hurt for some of this information to find its way into the story as it adds considerably more tension, making these gaudy women look even more foolish as they party while being surrounded by violence. Rand’s midnight departures and eventual disappearance also become even more ominous.
Chapters alternate almost consistently between the points of view of Canada and of Grace. We could expect this approach to give us an understanding and empathy with each character, but with Helms, all is does is shine a brighter light in dark and empty rooms.
In short paragraphs in the first and last part of the book, Canada speculates and remembers from the vantage point of a later time and place. This departure from the claustrophobic and hedonistic expatriate world of Ankara feels like a spring breeze, and as she draws back to contemplate and remember, Canada could give us an opportunity to discover what she has learned, as well as fill in the necessary blanks. What has transpired with this dysfunctional little family and where is Rand? Otherwise, why bother with these short sections?
I knew everything; I knew nothing, Canada reminisces at the beginning. It appears at the end that the same is true. Bleak.
Helms lives in New York and is the author of a short story collection, American Wives. While the ending may frustrate, Dervishes is definitely worth reading. | July 2008
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.