four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Blood KinOriginally written as a master’s thesis in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel uncovers the sensuality of absolute power and its ability to corrupt everything it touches.

The Story: Insurgents depose and imprison a tyrannical president of an unnamed country in his palatial summer residence with three of his closest attendants: his chef, his portraitist, and his barber. In alternating chapters, these three men attempt to explain and justify their complicity in—or ignorance of—the despotic regime by revisiting the past. Confined with the men are the women in their lives, including the chef’s daughter, the portraitist’s pregnant wife, and the barber’s brother’s fiancée, who reveal their own secrets and motivations. While some begin to crack under the strain of captivity, others indulge in sadistic power plays and dangerous political games that may destroy them all.
Viking. 192 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0670018562

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Blood Kin could easily be considered too darn depressing with all its greed, lies and betrayal, yet it reads so powerfully true. … Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ and Pasteur’s ‘chance favoring the prepared mind’ mingle to shocking effect within the hearts of all." M.E. Collins

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"In a slim, sharp first novel, Blood Kin, South Africa-born writer Ceridwen Dovey approaches politics through sexuality, forcefully underlining the unsettling ways in which the two are linked. … Although none of the characters have names, Dovey’s novel is refreshingly spiky and precise, its insights startling and original." Jennifer Reese

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Ceridwen Dovey’s mesmerising novel lifts the lid on a dictatorship and its perilous aftermath. … Although it’s tightly controlled, there is a hypnotic, languorous feel to the writing—even as the conclusion circles with the impatience of vultures over carrion." Catherine Taylor

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The effect is tense and dramatic, as though the claustrophobic pressures of a country house murder mystery, in which all are implicated by motive or connection, had been transplanted on to the political instability of García Màrquez’s revolutionary landscapes. Dovey draws strong, vivid characters and her keen eye for signposting detail (‘a faint pattern of salt on his cheeks’ revealing night tears) gives a sensual counterpoint to the ruthless logic of her subtly heralded denouement." James Urquhart

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"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 [during the coup] with very little stage-managing. … [Her] 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 an eerie frisson of desire." John Freeman

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The final movement of Blood Kin is a muted success: a few last-minute plot twists feel melodramatic and better suited to soap opera, but the novel’s closing pages, in which the fates of the Commander and his three servants at last converge, fold together as elegantly as origami. Dovey’s ultimate lesson, that nature and mankind abhor a power vacuum, may be a bleak one, but she presents her case so meticulously and relentlessly that you’ve got to respect her authority." Dave Itzkoff

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Occasionally the world-weariness [Dovey] imposes on some of her creations borders on the pat. … But for the most part Blood Kin navigates the rigors and perversities of its chosen territory with frightening precision and aplomb." Michael Upchurch

Critical Summary

The characters in Dovey’s formidable novel are nameless, identified only by their relationship to their master—a trait that at first lends a fable-like quality to the story. However, Blood Kin, with its brooding sexuality and festering hostilities, is no parable. Critics praised Dovey’s fluid prose, believable characters, and vivid sense of place, while citing only a few shortcomings: a few theatrical plot twists, a forced ending, and character voices that begin to merge together. "Still, these flaws feel easy to forgive," says the Minneapolis Star Tribune of "the most erotic novel you might ever read about political gamesmanship and power." Hailed "a fully formed master storyteller" by the Chicago Sun-Times, Dovey has written a harrowing, evocative tale.