The Dervish by Frances Kazan

I’m having trouble writing this review not because I didn’t like the book, because I absolutely did, but because it’s a non-traditional narrative and so conveying the essence of The Dervish is complicated. Though I haven’t read it in forever, The Dervish brought to mind A Passage to India. These two books both show a different culture through Western eyes, but not through the objective observer so much as through an innocent, ignorant, perspective that becomes entranced first with the flashing colors and then with the strong spirits beneath those brilliant shades.

The Dervish tells of an American artist who finds her second life in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire immediately after World War 1, which tore her first love from her to bury him in a French military graveyard among a million crosses. She journeys to Istanbul to stay with her sister, who invites her though they’ve grown apart as their lives took different directions. Instead of becoming absorbed in the ex-patriot/diplomatic circles and parties, Mary is entranced by the people and the place around her, seeing first the beauty of ancient architecture that whispers of times gone by and then the tension left after the war, a tension only worsened by contradictory treaties during the war that gave rights over this land to a variety of Allies, claims that have roots, if any, in the far distant past. The Turks find themselves unwanted in their own land, their inheritance subject to the fighting of dogs over a bone.

America stands outside all of this simply because it has no claim, but sympathies for the beleaguered Turks run through many hearts, even those at the highest level of the U.S. Embassy.

The novel throws you into a convoluted political, military, and social situation where loyalty and conscience come at a high price.

Mary begins in ignorance, exploring far and wide without consideration for the danger. She accepts the necessity of dressing like a native so she doesn’t stand out as a target only because it enables her sketches to capture the true nature of those around her. But her blissful state is soon shattered in the most horrific way as she cannot turn aside the pleas of a young Turk who at first thinks she’s one of them and then has no choice, the British soldiers almost upon him. That decision, and what happens next, sets her on a path to another life filled with confusion and treacherous roads, and yet one that helps her understand the Nationalist cause and her own convictions as nothing ever has before.

It’s a powerful book with many types of love, faith, and moments of realization. At the same time, it’s an easy read with the words flowing over you so that before you know it you’ve reached the end and are left to ponder the many things this book reveals about the end of the First World War, the treatment of the vanquished (especially those who had neither the power nor the ability to make any of the decisions that led to this moment), and the relationship between the various Allied Forces.

Mary’s artistic eye offers a clear vision into the heart of this time and the people involved, while her status as an American gives her a glimpse into the state of an outsider even among friends. Which doesn’t even touch on the odd position she’s placed in, a voice of a people with whom she cannot share a simple conversation in their native tongue. The friendships and connections she makes, the way she becomes part of that world even while being held apart, is all very powerful and evocative.

For a moment, I’m going to step outside of the story and look at it from a writing perspective because I think there are some lessons to be had and a cautionary tale (though this is the arc and not the final copy I’m reading, I doubt these aspects will change). I’m not one of those who opposes prologues out of hand. However, in this case, I understand why people might develop such a stance.

The prologue serves two purposes in the book: it sets up the story as a narrative told looking back–preparing the reader for the rare, but noticeable, narrator intrusion–and it gives a short history lesson to ground the reader in the time period for the book. Honestly, I think the grounding would have been better blended into the story itself instead of a flood of information about the war, a lot of which did not turn out to be relevant for any purpose but to set the background for the Allied Forces’ presence and intent to destroy the Ottoman Empire. As to the story frame, again here I don’t think it was necessary to support the few narrator intrusions (which worked in the moment), and it served to distance the terrible dangers Mary faces because she’s not only a first person narrator, but we know she survives because we’ve “met” her future self.

So, with the caution that if you’re the type to skip a prologue, as I am not, it might be worth skipping this one, and especially, do not choose whether to read this book based on the prologue as it holds little of the strength of the novel, I recommend The Dervish thoroughly. While I received my copy through NetGalley, I will keep an eye out for other works by Kazan based on her ability to bring the Turks and their world at such a crucial time to life.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Share Your Thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.