Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce
I have long been enamoured of Turkey. Actually, strictly speaking I have long been enamoured of the idea of Turkey: the decadence, the luxury, the it’s very different there. Over the last number of years I have come to the realisation that this idea, or dream, of the country is a very European one, and a very colonial one in many regards – it’s a view of “the East” that has existed in “the West” at least since the Romans had their snooty ideas about Egypt and Persia. Despite being well aware of its source, and feeling uncomfortable about that, there is still an allure in those incredibly not-politically-correct views. And that’s the point, of course: the allure comes from the (alleged) exotic nature of somewhere very “different” (from Western Europe), and difference is always attractive. (The point, too, was that by identifying certain things like decadence as traits from over there, the viewer could take the prim moral stance and still enjoy it. But I digress….)
I got to thinking about these sorts of things in reading The Dervish House because it is set in near-future Istanbul: a city in many ways very similar to those of Western Europe, America, and Australia that I am familiar with, but with enough differences – real differences – that it retains an aura of the exotic. The story could, with some changes of course, be set in any city really. But setting it in Istanbul allows McDonald to do many things, not least of which is imbuing his setting with a deep sense of history that the relatively new cities of America and Australia just don’t have. Istanbul is very much a character in this novel; the complexity of the city itself – geographically, historically – is deeply important to the plot and the characters. There is even a character whose main interest in life is mapping the social history of the city, an idea I find very attractive.
The Dervish House is a simultaneously dense and frantic novel. In 472 pages McDonald covers five days in the life of the city, from the point of view of six main characters. An old Greek man, a young Turkish invalid, a successful businesswoman, an ambitious businesswoman, a no-hoper and a stockmarket player: with this cast, McDonald creates a vibrant city. Some of their stories interweave with one another, at one point or another, while others appear tangential; all combine to give a rich, rich view of the near future. Their plots are wonderfully varied: there’s romance, there’s adventure, there’s corporate espionage and shady deals and antiquarian detective work; religious fanaticism, world-weariness, wild success and disappointments. At times the writing is so dense that I had a little trouble following it, but the sheer beauty of it – along with the compelling sense that I needed to know what was going to happen – meant that wasn’t too much of a hassle.
One of the things that fascinated me about this book is that reading it as an SF reader, it’s clearly SF; there are enough references to nanotechnology and other futuristic things to ensure that. However, the date isn’t made clear until about two-thirds of the way through the book, and the technology isn’t really central, so it ought to have broader mainstream appeal, too.