[29 April 2008]
The old dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is put to the test in Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin. Throughout this portrait of a small republic following a coup, Dovey seems to question whether it’s those who seek power who are already corrupted.
Blood Kin is, like all good fables, deceptively simple. Extraneous details are removed. We have no names, no place names, no national history. The story effectively takes place in an ahistorical, ageographical landscape. It could be anywhere at any time, which is rather the point. The details we are given suggest something like Latin America in the 1980s or 1990s, but by refusing to ground the novel in a time and place, Dovey has given her novel additional punch.
Our protagonists in this tale are three men, closely aligned with the old regime and taken hostage along with the former President. They are his barber, his cook, and his portrait-artist. Each narrates alternating chapters throughout the first part, telling the story of how they came to know the deposed leader and how they ended up in captivity with him.
The chapters are brief and to the point. Information and the reader’s understanding accumulate over time, as each part of the puzzle connects with adjoining pieces. Yet the President remains enigmatic throughout. The stories told by the three working men are more illuminating in what they say about the men themselves than about their employer or their country.
When the reader has begun to consider that they understand the situation, the author opens up new perspectives to show that all that has been related before may not be entirely accurate. Halfway through, the chapter narrators switch to three women, each of whom is associated with one of the men and each of whom was introduced in the first part. However, in referring to “his barber’s brother’s fiancée”, Dovey is being slightly disingenuous. This strong, complex female character is far more than an appendage to the men she knows and the writer knows this.
Yet the women are also something less than the independent spirits they would like to be. The country in which the story takes place is inherently patriarchal, to an even greater degree than most. Fathers dominate their daughters; men control their spouses and girlfriends. All political leaders are militarily minded and masculine. The women are hemmed in by conventions and the men in their lives.
Perhaps Dovey is presenting the simplistic (but common) assertion than a world run by women would be a world without wars. Certainly her female characters seem to be more alert to the absurdity of the power games going on than the men. Their feminine wisdom stands in stark contrast to the men’s pride and foolishness. In this, Dovey’s heavily stylised approach to situation and character does diminish the force of this point. Without some kind of narrative realism, the characters seem too much like straw men and the sociological points become more polemical, more contrived and therefore less true.
That is not to say that the novel’s women are perfect, or that the male characters are all bad. Dovey seems to be more interested in general human behaviour than point-scoring in some battle of the sexes. All the narrators are sympathetic to varying degrees. The author’s balance of stylised morality tale with deep characterisation is on a par with David Maine’s excellent Old Testament retellings, probably the best recent example of this technique.
Where Dovey is especially clever is in her unwillingness to give the standard clues and signals for which characters to sympathise with. In books without a clear hero or heroine, writers typically indicate (with varying degrees of subtlety) upon a character’s introduction whether they will be the “good guy” or the “bad guy”. Moral ambiguity is allowed, but usually within the framework of the character’s essential decency or general malignity.
Our six principal characters are all introduced on their own terms and in their own words. It is their perspective which we are expected to accept until other perspectives conflict. And conflict they do—particularly in the sharp contrasts between the narratives of the portraitist and his wife.
The delayed revelations of character and motivation are effective in generating the element of surprise. If Blood Kin is a novel about the evil that lurks beneath the surface, then Dovey is set on keeping some of it concealed until the very end. And the final twists, when they come, are a mix of the surprising, the subconsciously expected, and the downright strange.
Just about everything that has gone before develops significance in the end and the author’s eye for detail is revealed to be more than a mere love of minutiae. This is a novel with a clear sense of purpose. Its economical length (less than 200 pages) and tight structure reveal this to be a fable in the truest sense of the word. And it’s a stylish one, too.
You probably won’t read another debut novel this year that is as assured and ruthlessly efficient as Blood Kin. Maybe Dovey is a bit of a guerrilla warrior herself.