Blood Kin, By Ceridwen Dovey

All the president's men (and women)

Reviewed,James Urquhart
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:26

In a nameless country of mountains, coast and severe weather, a man styling himself as the Commander has effected a regime change. His troops have sequestered the former President up in the palatial Summer Residence that gives a panoramic view over the toxic, airless heat of the capital. Among those rounded up with him are three men: his portraitist, his barber and his chef, whose braid of voices gradually unfold the not-so-latent horrors of the deposed President's rule.

Through nepotism via his wife's father, a favoured tycoon, the portraitist had been hired to paint a fresh image of the President each week. He quickly collapses in captivity, wanting to hide behind his craven, resonantly culpable plea that "if I am exempt from one thing as an artist, surely it is knowing what my Government is doing?" The chef stands in ruthless contrast. Manipulative, misogynistic and wily, he is a cocky old Lothario interested only in his own fortunes, which he pursues with vigour despite his age. "We all know power and desire couple effortlessly," he reflects lazily, in an aphoristic manifesto for his character. Meanwhile, the Presdient's barber is a fastidious young man who came to the city to find an intimate contact with the President. Having gained access with his cut-throat, he had lacked the courage to murder the President in vengeance for the execution of his older brother, an underground revolutionary.

The impressionistic patina of these accounts is given depth when Dovey, right, draws in thoughts from three women: the portraitist's wife, the chef's sado-masochistic daughter and the barber's brother's fiancée – who is now the Commander's wife. Her fractured loyalties hold the key to Dovey's compressed plot, which eviscerates the corruption of the political body in the intimately drawn miniature of this slim but potent début novel.

Blood Kin doesn't aspire to the intense psychological anxieties mustered by similar explorations of collusion and oppression, such as Thomas Kenneally's Saddam cipher, The Tyrant's Novel. The trauma of physical violence is kept off stage whilst Dovey strategically deploys snapshots of family heritage. 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 Garcia 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 dénouement.

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