Dervishes: A Novel
4.5 out of 5: The wife of a government agent (Grace) and her daughter (Canada) take turns telling the story of a year (1975-76) spent in Ankara, Turkey. Mother and daughter struggle with an often absent and alcoholic father and with their position as outsiders in a foreign culture. While attempting to find validation and love outside the home, each finds herself in morally precarious circumstances, which ultimately lead to serious consequences. At one point late in the book, Canada remembers seeing dervishes dance and describes the figures as “isolated, spinning endlessly in place.” This is the source of the book’s title and is also the perfect metaphor for what Canada and her mother are doing in Turkey.
Helms captures her foreign location with evocative accounts of local locations, customs, smells, and even personalities (the archetypal Turkish houseboy, for example). Dervishes also reveals the positive influence of Helms’s experience as a short story writer. Like a good short story, Dervishes is precisely written with close attention to detail, leaving the impression that every experience or memory is an important part of the narrative whole. Although the narration is tightly controlled, Dervishes does not shy away from the ambiguity and messiness of human experience. In other words, the story is cleanly told but is far from clean. If any complaint can be made about this book, it’s that Canada sometimes speaks with a voice well beyond her supposed 12 years. Highly recommended.