|Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey|
|Sunday, 12 October 2008 18:00|
Published by Penguin.
This remarkably wise, prize-winning first novel is about power. Although the setting is deliberately not identifiable (like Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), South African readers will find the kind of state power that Dovey depicts historically all too recognizable: it is illegitimate, brutal, and lacking gravitas or authority. The “earthly trappings … of people in power” (136) are everywhere, but those who exercise or resist power are presented in their private lives, stripped to their defecating, copulating and ruminating selves. And yet there is a beauty and freshness in the writing that kept me engrossed. The local effects are often delicate and subtle but they bear strongly on the novel’s themes, as when one woman remembers the cowries in her collection being “smooth and tight as a baby’s fist” (128).When the story opens, the President of an unnamed country has just been deposed (by a long-standing rebel group, as it turns out) but the novel turns away from the violence that might have happened in the streets to explore power through tortured personal relationships. Gendered power becomes the main focus of the narrative, and, in a move that will again be familiar to South African readers, the novel’s axiom is that despotic state power infects all human relationships. Dovey works as a fabulist, but the Jacobean family, marital and sexual relationships she creates are more than allegorical for they also have a capacity to impact causally on the state power that they reflect.
Dovey uses a small cast of characters, three of whom narrate in each section in alternating monologues. No character is identified by name, only by function or relationship. First we meet the President’s official portraitist, then his chef and then his barber – three men who have worked in intimate contact with the deposed President’s person, but not one of whom seems to know or care what the man has done in his public office. This means that in the aftermath of the coup their memories seem at first somewhat off-centre: the portraitist recalls how he would prepare his palette (and a little strangely, I thought, refers to jacaranda petals as being a “regal purple”), the chef remembers the seafood he would prepare for Sunday brunch, and the barber how he would pluck hair from his client’s ears and nose. But from the beginning these memories are also menacing; cruelty if not violence imbues the most mundane of activities and the atmosphere is one of dread. Gradually the reasons for such unease can be inferred as past seductions and treacheries enter the present story. In what will turn out to be a key set of mutual betrayals Dovey has the portraitist remember his last glimpse of his wife as he left her with the President in order to complete his painting of the man’s wife: “A night wind had come up full of sea salt, and her hair was being whipped around her head like a helicopter blade. She smiled at me strangely as if she knew something I didn’t. I turned to look back at her … and saw she’d taken out her pocket mirror and was applying lipstick, flicking her hair out of her face and mouth repeatedly. The President watched her from his deckchair, mesmerized” (52). Nothing is stated but treachery thickens the air. It is a measure of Dovey’s skill that disentangling the layers of duplicity, complicity, insight and self-protective blindness in this moment is as complex as it would be at the level of national politics.
In the second section, three women – a wife, a lover and a daughter, but each playing more than one role – take over the narration. As with the men, their voices are not strongly individualized, partly so that their actions may reflect and repeat each other in unnerving ways. They too are kin and they are bound together in a web of complicity. But unlike the men, they are readier to acknowledge what is happening. As the new rulers move into the city palace the new President’s wife (and the barber’s dead brother’s fiancée) wonders about “badness” and contamination, remembering too how wild flowers grew on the rubbish tips of her childhood, masking “the stink with their fragrance” (84). The portraitist’s wife, who comes from the other end of the social scale and who relishes the deceptions entailed in her work as a “food beautician” (10), thinks that “most of the time you can only guess what – if anything – other people are getting up to, but in those few months [of being heavily pregnant] … you know everybody knows what you did” (95). Even here, however, the woman’s honesty with herself about what her belly exposes is not complete, as the climax of the brief final section – which is sudden, surprising and wholly fitting – reveals.
The end is abrupt and bloody but in it is a grain of hope as Dovey allows each of her male characters to reach a suitable, rather than a determined, end: one rises above himself and exacts retribution; one is made to confront what he had masked in sentiment; one takes over in a smooth transition of power. Each woman, perhaps inevitably in such a context, shares the fate of her man, although this world has not always made it easy to tell which man that will be.
This remarkable novel’s exploration of power is as apposite and disturbing as it should be. It is also fresh and original. Blood Kin has already attained international recognition as a thought-provoking and compelling work (TLS 1.8.2008). It richly deserves and repays such attention.