Glimmering, Seductive Novel Steeped in Secrets
A Contrary review by Frances Badgett

        I don’t remember his name, but I remember the way he smiled, the way he leaned in toward us, almost whispering, choosing his words carefully. He told us about whirling dervishes, Sufis, the Qur’an. He toured us through the Ghazal and, with blue glittering eyes, recited lines in Urdu. Jaded teenagers, we sat back in our desks and chewed our erasers and stared. But as he spoke, we, too, leaned forward, our ears tuned to his soft voice. By the end of the week, he had us meditating and doing T’ai Chi. Creative writing class, high school, in the heat of the end of the school year, we were contemplating dervishes and Sufis. We were moving slowly together, our arms floating through the air, learning about not only writing, but what feeds it, where to go for inspiration, for influence. As I read Beth Helms’ Dervishes, I remembered that hot classroom, those arms swirling, the room silent save for the tick of the clock on the wall as we closed our eyes for meditation, and how we all fell under this man’s collective spell. A glimmering, seductive novel steeped in dark secrets, Helms’ Dervishes is about an American family living in Turkey. 
        As a typically judgmental girl in her early teens, Canada’s role is mostly as an observer, cataloguing her mother Grace’s failures, experiencing the deep and prolonged disappointment of her best friend Catherine’s betrayals, and learning difficult lessons from the casual cruelty of her friend Kate. Canada cuts her mother little slack as she watches Grace navigate the confusing world into which they have both been thrust by Canada’s father, Rand. Though he is absent, it is he who defines how these two women interact, he who throws them together. When present, he is Canada’s companion, even when an alcohol-induced accident renders him bedridden for weeks. She seeks him out, watches him, waits for him to return and rescue her from the stifling relationship with Grace. And that relationship is so much more than just a mother-daughter conflict: Canada is so much of her age, that her condemnation of her mother is both justified and not. This gray area of their relationship is one of the many skillful ways Helms rescues the novel from the cliché of mother-daughter dynamics or domestic family drama. 
        Helms also skillfully paints the languid, wanton life of embassy wives in very concise, lyrical prose. The tone of the novel fits Helms’ lush style. The novel is full of paragraphs like the following, in which setting, tone, and prose inform the characters and narrative:

“For Grace, the dim and sweltering afternoons bring endless games of whist, small plates of olives and cheese and honeyed pastries scattered on lace tablecloths. She’d joined a group put together by the embassy advertised as a meeting of Turkey and English-speaking ladies for the purpose of exchanging culture and language. She assumes, of course, that it’s intended to keep them all out of trouble.”

But, as a novelist friend of mine says, novels are about trouble. 

        In Dervishes, the characters’ troubles originate with secrets. There is Firdis, the maid who inexplicably moves objects around their apartment, so that lost objects turn up in odd places. Catherine also stashes Simone’s possessions, employing Canada’s aid in hiding stolen trinkets in her own room. And there is the dark secret at the heart of the novel. A novel that hides and reveals secrets without feeling simplistic requires an author who understands how to place events with precision and skill. Helms unfolds her story so carefully that none of the affairs and flirtations, thefts and discoveries feels forced.
        But possibly the most effective element in Dervishes is the way in which Helms intersects her Western Caucasian characters with Turkish culture. The novel’s biggest risk is also the risk of arming teenagers with the Qur’an on a hot school day: condescension, oversimplification, and misunderstanding. Helms tiptoes through this minefield by making her characters both self-conscious about their “otherness” and accustomed to the feeling of being outsiders, not-quite-residents, permanent tourists. Helms writes, “She [Grace] loves Ankara’s mosques and minarets, the men bend on prayer rugs, the idea of a whole city facing one direction in unison, responding to an ancient, nearly tuneless call. Ezan, it’s called here. In contrast, the antiseptic church gatherings on the British compound—which at first they’d all attended regularly, at her insistence—now seem tiresome and terribly staged.” 
        Dervishes would almost be easy to dismiss as a dull domestic drama if Helms weren’t as talented as she is. She propels the reader through this story. Imbued with magic and seduction, Helms’ Dervishes is complex, as her characters maneuver the distances between them caused by the secrets they stash in closets, suitcases, and in their own, dark hearts.

Frances Badgett is the fiction editor of Contrary.

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Beth Helms
2008, Picador






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