Dervishes, by Beth Helms, is the story of a mom, Grace, and her daughter Canada, ex-pats living in Turkey in the mid-70s. Grace's husband Rand is some sort of secret U.S. foreign service officer, and they have moved (as a couple and later as a family of three) over the years to various exotic postings. Grace doesn't know what her husband actually does– he keeps everything secret from her – and as their marriage wears on, she takes less and less pride in his position and becomes increasingly frustrated and isolated.
The book focuses on a period of about 8 months in Ankara, when Canada is 13 and her mother is 40. The two have a distant, chilly relationship, and the book alternates between the two perspectives – Grace's in the third person and Canada's in the first – which I thought was an interesting choice by Helms.
Over the course of the 8 months, Helms explores the power dynamic between Grace and Canada, their respective relationships with Rand, and the relationships that develop and die away between Grace or Canada and a number of other characters. Helms' writing is an interesting combination – her descriptions of place are wonderfully rich, transporting the reader to unfamiliar yet beautifully drawn locales, while the passages moving the plot along and conveying dialogue are spare and efficient. I found myself rereading many sections, just to be sure that I hadn't missed anything. The characters in Dervishes are rather cold, and often cruel. While I had trouble relating to any of them, it didn't deter from my enjoyment of the book or the experience of unraveling the story.
Another of Helms' strengths – in addition to her wonderful gift of description – is her ability to deconstruct relationships and decipher the hidden codes of body language and social convention. In that regard, I think she's a brilliant writer.
Dervishes was an interesting book, and I am glad I read it. At the end, I had trouble putting it down. It isn't a great fit for readers who want every question answered and every mystery explained, but for those who enjoy some ambiguity and beautiful writing and descriptions, I recommend it.