The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

Article published on June 27, 2011.

The Dervish House is a complex tale of several characters that all live in the titular abode in near-future Istanbul. A detailed plot synopsis would be as long as the book. It is so rich, detailed and bristling with ideas that at times it might seem to be drowning under its own weight.

It’s 2025 and as a heat wave hits northern Turkey, a terror attack also hits. Necdet, who is estranged from his family, witnesses the attack but as in all good fiction, not everything is as it seems. In fact, as a result of the attack, he starts seeing Djinn everywhere. An elderly Greek economist, Georgios Ferentinou, befriends 9-year old Can Durukan who is obsessed with his shape-shifting robot toy and would love to be a detective. Leyla gets a job working for distant relations developing new nanotechnology while Ayse, a gallery owner, accepts a job looking for a Mellified Man, which is a mythological human mummy confection. The lives and adventures of these characters come together and drift apart around Adem Dede Square, which is where you would find the Dervish House.

The characters’ lives inter-weave in the multifaceted narrative while the plot navigates between nanotechnology, future AI based-economics, robotics, political conspiracy, ancient history, religion and mythology. And yes, there is a satisfying conclusion.
A dervish is someone who treads a Sufi Muslim ascetic, or abstinence, known for their extreme poverty and austerity. The characters that live in this house have a range of beliefs and wealth, and there is nothing austere about McDonald’s writing.

There is so much to admire about McDonald’s opus. The prose is fluid and there was no point I felt like I was being led up the garden path. I had faith that all the plot strands would be tied up nice and neat. The imagination and research that has gone into the book is nothing short of awe-inspiring. From apple tea to dolmuses (mini buses), it feels genuinely authentic, as if McDonald has lived there all his life. Considering he is from Manchester and lives in Belfast, it is even more remarkable. I would be interested to know what an Istanbulian makes of the descriptions. There are as many ideas as there are words, or so it seems. And I think, being critical, that this is the problem with the book. There are so many plot threads and characters, it is almost exhausting keeping up with them all. I think McDonald could have lost a couple of characters and dropped a few ideas and presented a much more satisfying read. I did drift a bit from time to time, and there were some characters that I wasn’t particular interested in. I was wishing, when reading it, that the chapters with Leyla would be short so I could get back to the stories of Can, Georgios and Necdet. All that said, however, this takes nothing away from the impressive scale of the novel and repeated reads may lead to a more enjoyable experience.

McDonald’s writing might be described as admirable. After all, his recent novels have been based in Africa, Brazil and India. There are very few other writers that feature protagonists and heroes that are not western or white. These are not token works. McDonald delves deep into these cultures to examine the future of everyone.

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