Jul 12, 2010

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald has long been a part of my Pile of Shame - the books and authors I've always thought I should read, but somehow never gotten around to. In his case, I tried tackling Desolation Road a few months back, but for some reason I just lost interest halfway through, even though I enjoyed it quite a lot until that point. The Dervish House, then, was to be the novel to acquaint me with McDonald. It is his third "ethno" work after River of the Gods and Brazil, and it has generated an avalanche of on-line praise, so the timing was perfect.

Istanbul, in the year 2027. Twenty million people live there, and it is still the Queen of Cities, a crossroads of worlds and religions, a maze of ordered chaos and quiet cacophonies, of petty dramas and grand designs. A city where the old and the new, the mystical and the futuristic embrace in prayer around its many mosques. Turkey has become part of the European Union, and a major player in the nanotechnology field.

A suicidal bomber in a tram heralds the beginning of life-changing events for six people. A rogue trader prepares himself for the scam of the century. His wife, an owner of an art gallery, sets on a mission to discover a legendary treasure hidden somewhere in the great city. A young marketing graduate is hired by a family business that could change the world, but she has only five days to save it. A nine-year old boy with a heart condition that forces him to wear ear-plugs, thus stealing all sound from his world, becomes the accidental witness to the beginnings of a conspiracy, and turns into the Boy Detective. His friend, a retired Greek economist, is hired into a military think-tank, but he has to battle old demons before he could face new ones. And a good-for-nothing slacker caught in the tram accident starts seeing jinn, and becomes a new man. All those lives intertwine as Istanbul plunges into a five-day heat-wave, to weave a tale of dirty deals, nanotechnology and a whole new kind of terrorism.

Ok, so I want to come clean before I continue. It took tremendous effort on my part to finish The Dervish House, and in the end, it was sheer stubbornness and determination that prevented me from giving up on it. Not for a second did a sympathize with any of the characters, and the story started to actually go somewhere only in the last seventy pages.

Now, don't take me wrong. Ian McDonald is obviously a very talented writer, and even if the present tense he uses in the novel is a bit tiring at times, his style is beautiful - rich and vivid, playing with rhythm and phrase in a multitude of ways. Alas, I could never feel his Istanbul. Not in any real sense, even though it is evident that he has put a lot of effort and knowledge into building the atmosphere of the city. And his work seems to have payed off, as many on-line reviewers point mid-twenty first century Istanbul as one of the strongest aspects of the book. To me, it remained just a random place that nothing was happening in for three hundred pages.

The characters are given small segments of a couple of pages each, before McDonald moves on to the next one. That means we follow all of their stories pretty much simultaneously, but it also means that none of those stories actually move. The Dervish House is split into the five days of the heat-wave, and chapters plod ponderously over the hours, as little snippets of different lives are shown in painstaking detail, with all the atmospheric minutiae that I would love, if they actually did it for me. Considering that I turned out to be immune to McDonald's atmosphere-building and character-developing skills however, all I was left with were six separate stories that seemed to go nowhere, lacked anything to make them even a little exciting, and when the final seventy pages finally kicked in, and the stories started to merge, I wished that we had arrived there a lot earlier. Plot-wise the book needs anywhere between a hundred and fifty, and two hundred pages less.

Honestly, I am somewhat saddened. I really wanted to like The Dervish House, and to become a fan of McDonald's writing. I still do, actually, and after some time has passed, I will most likely try and read others of his books. He seems to be exactly the type of writer that I respect ia like. Yet, even if nothing in The Dervish House touched me in any way, it is a good book, and I can appreciate that a tremendous amount of effort and thought has been put into it. Also, considering all the stellar reviews over the Internet, I suspect I am in the minority here, so my advice would be for you to try it out for yourself. What it didn't do for me, it might do for you.


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