Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey
Review by John Freeman
Human beings make such a mess of getting on in peacetime—you'd think all bets would be off during palace coups. But what if an overthrown government didn’t lead to mayhem? What if it only shined a bold, bright light on the secrets and lies that came before—not those of its officers, but of its citizens?
This clever premise lies at the heart of Ceridwen Dovey’s assured first novel, Blood Kin, a dark fable set in an unnamed fictional country. It is probably the most erotic novel you will ever read about political gamesmanship and power.
As the tale begins, a president is overthrown, and his chef, barber and portraitist are all brought to a mountain hideaway, under the guise of a new commander.
Dovey is an unfussy writer, and she jumps from one man to the next to the next, telling the story of each one’s brush with death (assassins entered the palace with pistols and silencers) with very little stage-managing. The danger of the situation provokes an immediate wash of empathy for her characters, who seem at first like victims. The portraitist’s pregnant wife is pulled away from him. The chef is ripped from his routine, too.
But it quickly becomes clear how much their routine was a ritual worship of power. The barber, for instance, originally took his job to murder the big man—the president had killed his brother—but each day he held the knife, his hand balked, choosing instead to caress the president’s neck.
The portraitist is so grateful for having full-time work he too decided not to think about the president’s misdeeds. “I knew the shade of his skin,” he says, “the hue of his hair, the pinkness of the half-moons in his nails. After he’d arrived, and was seated, I’d adjust the colors slightly according to his mood: if it had been a bad week, his skin tone needed more yellow; if he was feeling benevolent, I added a daub of blue to the white of his eyes.”
At just 27 years of age, Dovey has a profound understanding of the way a dictator’s monomania enforces a voluptuous sensuality upon those around him. His subjects are watching him, tending to him, grooming him. Everyone in this book is ultimately seduced by these rituals. Then, when they are cut free of them after the coup, this loverly energy boomerangs back upon themselves.
You might think palace residents would take this time away from life as they knew it to account for their cowardice under the previous president, but they are too busy thinking of themselves, of love, of sex. The chef—who would have much rather crept up on a choice piece of abalone than murder the president—spends his time reminiscing about his previous lovers.
Bouncing between this group, Blood Kin notches up a brooding, simmering tension, which turns to a boil when Dovey begins narrating from the perspectives of several different women: the chef’s daughter, the barber’s brother’s fiancée and the portraitist’s wife.
The spectacle of dictatorial power seems to have filtered down into their lives in a similar way as it did with the men; even the first gunshots of the coup have an erotic vibration. “I think we all secretly like those kinds of mini-catastrophes that let us off the hook for a few hours or days,” says the chef’s daughter.
What is more important—who is in office, or who is in your bed? For the characters of this book, it’s the latter, even if the bed is your parents’ bed. The chef’s daughter describes how her father’s sexual betrayal of her mother led to a kind of emotional coup for her: “It was a slow process of deflation,” she writes, “a tedious, dragged-out series of small disappointments in him that at this stage in my life add up to something substantial.”
In the end, Blood Kin doesn’t entirely deliver on what that something substantial should be for the whole book. Its ending feels forced, and the voices of the characters begin to blend together. Still, these flaws feel easy to forgive. Dovey’s bleakly human subjects crawl through this novel under extraordinary pressures, and their voices have the pinched, urgent furtiveness of notes passed through a prison wall—only with half the desperation, and an eerie frisson of desire.
John Freeman is president of the National Critics Circle.
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