I've been doing my traveling via armchair for some years now. With the right book in hand, though, this is not nearly as limiting as it might sound. Beth Helms' first novel, Dervishes, is an excellent way to visit Turkey in the turbulent 1970s. Helms, who grew up abroad, writes with authority about what it's like to be the daughter or wife of a man attached to the American embassy, a man who gets phone calls in the middle of the night, takes the suitcase he keeps packed for such times, and disappears for weeks at a time. His 12-year-old daughter Canada muses, "We must have trusted the government to return him to us when they were finished with him." Canada, who knows her parents are having problems, wonders if her mother is aware of "the changes, when he had gone, in the very texture of the atmosphere around us, in the molecules and the spaces between them, in even the temperature of the air."
Helms is a beautiful writer. Grace, Canada's unhappy mother, describes the way her daughter smells: "her girlish, horsey, filched bath-salts odor"; she fantasizes about spending time with her Turkish lover "while long, gorgeous minutes slip by." Canada's best friend's looks fascinate Canada: "What would it be like in there—moored inside Catherine's flawless self?" This thought-provoking book is not a light, isn't-it-interesting-growing-up-in-a-foreign-culture novel.
Much of what Helms turns her intensely observant eye on is painful, ugly, embarrassing or grim. (This can be a particularly tough book for animal lovers.) Canada and Catherine pass time making recipes from The Officer's Wife, a 30-year-old guide for women whose husbands are in the foreign service, a book whose attitudes only sound antique. And in the relationships between the Turkish characters and the American and Canadians who reside in their country as guests, there's little that isn't flinch-worthy, although there are faults on all sides. For those interested in the true complexity of the East-West divide, Dervishes is a trip worth taking.
Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.