In Dervishes, Beth Helms creates a stifling atmosphere of gossip and intrigue within the American diplomatic enclave in Ankara. Set in the '70s, this is also an exploration of the mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator, twelve-year-old Canada, is accustomed to her father going on mysterious extended trips for the government. In fact, he keeps a pre-packed suitcase in the hall closet for emergency summons. She's also used to a strained household: she can't remember a time when her parents didn't fight. While she loves her father, she tends to simply ignore her mother, and soon she's spending all of her time with her new best friend, Catherine. However, Turkey seems full of illicit secrets, and as the novel progresses, it seems like everyone's lives are spiraling out of control.
Helms is adept at descriptions, and she really makes the reader feel the claustrophobia of such a small, isolated group. The glimpses she shows of Ankara are well-developed as well; when Canada's mother goes to the market, the reader can almost smell the Turkish spices. Unfortunately, these glimpses are few and far between: in the 1960s, Turkey was hostile to America, and it's better for Helms' story if the characters remain in their tightly-proscribed circles' also unfortunately, Helms' plotting is not as strong. While the first half of the novel is convincing, toward the end events spiral out of control to such an extreme that the reader is forced to stop believing. It seems highly unlikely that Canada's mother could be as stupid, or perhaps blind is a kinder word, as she is, and without that stupidity she couldn't get herself in as much trouble. Additionally, Helms' view of people seems unrelentingly bleak; there is not a single good, much less honorable, character in the entire book. At about three hundred pages, such darkness opresses the reader; it becomes difficult to keep reading when there isn't a single ray of light. It also contributes to the unrealistic feeling of the book. In real life, people are both good and bad. In fact, as Dervishes progress, it begins to feel more like a fable than a novel. In fables, such one-dimensional characters are necessary; it's the only way to show that when people do bad things, they get punished. The large quantities of alcohol, cigarettes, and sex also make the book feel almost dream-like. Except for Canada, the characters wander through a hazy world, never quite getting to reality.
Indeed, if Helms had merely told Canada's story and left out her mother, this would have been an interesting coming-up-age book. The friendship between Canada and Catherine, who in the beginning are as close as perhaps only twelve-year-old girls can be, faces a problem in the form of John, the Turkish houseboy. John is handsome, and as he and Catherine begin to form a relationship, Canada becomes jealous and hurt. Catherine seems to be growing up, rejecting her mother and encouraging John, while Canada remains a child. Of course, Canada desperately wishes that John would notice her instead, and eventually Canada and Catherine have a falling out. Canada's actions and her thoughts are well-captured and remain compelling to the reader. Both the girls are very human: they have strengths and weaknesses, and while they make mistakes, they try to fix them. Helms is at her best among such characters on the cusp of adolescence. The book would have been much more enjoyable if it had included more about the girls, and perhaps their school, and the effect that their parents' lifestyles had on them. If Helms had stayed with Canada's point of view throughout, instead of giving her mother such attention, this would have been a highly recommended book. As it is, it has above-average descriptions with below-average plots, and characters who are either very realistic or completely flat.