DERVISHES by Beth Helms


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From short-story writer Helms (American Wives, 2003), an awkward debut novel about a mother and daughter getting into trouble in Ankara’s diplomatic enclave between June 1975 and February 1976.

Twelve-year-old Canada’s first-person narrative alternates with a chronicle of her mother Grace’s misadventures. Rand, the husband and father whose job brought them to Turkey, is frequently absent on mysterious government business—when he isn’t making a drunken spectacle of himself at parties. Grace, who doesn’t fit in well with the other diplomatic wives, finds refuge in a close friendship with Bahar, the elegant, cosmopolitan wife of a doctor who seems to be initiating her into the intricacies of Turkish social life, but turns out to be using her. Barely attended to by Grace, Canada runs wild in the streets with Catherine, whose icy mother Simone is the subject of many rumors due to her relationship with her enigmatic houseboy John. His connection with Catherine is also disturbingly intimate, as viewed through Canada’s half-comprehending eyes. Canada and Grace, angry and at odds with each other, are both inept at decoding and dealing with the intrigues swirling around them. Canada, unfairly accused of stealing things from Simone’s house, is ostracized at school. Grace gets involved in a scheme to have a childless American friend adopt her pregnant maid’s baby; though instigated by Bahar, when the adoption goes disastrously awry, it’s Grace who is blamed. Juggling an intricate, layered chronology, the author on several occasions waits too long to reveal important information about people’s motives. At the end, when sinister hints are dropped about Rand’s latest disappearance, readers are likely to be just as confused about what’s really going on as Grace and Canada are. Whatever larger points that Helms might be trying to make are equally unclear.

The book contains vivid local color and dark insights into the punishment closed communities inflict on those who can’t learn the unspoken rules, but it doesn’t add up to much.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-312-42619-4
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2007