In her splendid debut novel, Blood Kin, Ceridwen Dovey offers a tale about the revolutionary overthrow of a dictatorship in an unnamed country. The exchange of power she describes isn’t specific to the totalitarian governments of, say, Latin America or Africa, nor is it a critique of the sad play of current US international affairs. The novel isn’t, in fact, a commentary on our times, despite its setting in the present or the recent past. Instead, Dovey’s concern is more elemental: Blood Kin is a story about power, political and personal, and its dangerous ineffability.
The narration is circuitous: Alternating chapters—from the points of view of, first, the ousted president’s chef, barber, and portraitist and, later, the chef’s daughter, the barber’s brother’s fiancée, and the portraitist’s wife—wind back and forth in time. As all but one of these narrators are gathered in the president’s Summer Residence by the revolutionary leader, who calls himself “the Commander,” an odd map forms, linking the disparate members of this political puzzle in increasingly inauspicious terms.
The knit of Dovey’s tale, though seemingly ponderous, is tightly controlled, and her characters reveal only choice bits of themselves in each chapter. The egotistic chef gives a taste of his steadfast self-regard. When taken captive and blindfolded, his fate uncertain, he has the wherewithal to critique his gauche captors: “Once we were out of the city, I could smell that the guards in the car were eating large chunks of matured cheese that should have been consumed in small and savored doses.” At stake for the chef, barber, and portraitist is their apparent unquestioning loyalty to the president, but with the inclusion of the women’s voices, each narrator is compelled to address his or her complicity in various power structures, particularly in manipulating personal relationships to painfully self-serving ends.
Such domination is at once of the body (among the brutalized faces of the president’s victims—images disseminated by the revolutionaries as black-and-white posters—one resembles “a failed pudding”) and of the mind, a force shaped by human intention. The fiancée, one of the revolutionaries, ruefully observes that “human beings dispose of each other, set themselves up in the place of the deposed, and then go about their daily tasks. . . . Memory sieves out pain, dulls it with time, an essential trick to condemn us to repetition.” The barber, who sets himself apart from both the president and the Commander, is less equivocal: “They are all the same, these men, and it is best to nip them in the bud.” But for all his and the others’ convictions, Blood Kin reveals only that those who wield power are just as much its instrument.