Human beings make mess of getting on in peacetime

  • Article by: JOHN FREEMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2008 - 10:15 AM

A barber, a chef and a portraitist are taken prisoner during a coup in this tale that explores the question: Where does power lie - in the office or the bedroom?

Human beings make such a mess of getting on in peacetime, you'd think all bets would be off during palace coups. But what if an overthrown government didn't lead to mayhem? What if it only shined a bold, bright light on the secrets and lies that came before -- not those of its officers, but its citizens?

This clever premise lies at the heart of Ceridwen Dovey's assured first novel, "Blood Kin," a dark fable set in an unnamed fictional country. Here is the most erotic novel you might ever read about political gamesmanship and power.

As the tale begins, the President is overthrown, and his chef, barber and portraitist are all brought to a mountain hideaway under the rule of a new Commander.

Covey 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 (assassins entered the palace with pistols and silencers) with very little stage-managing. Their peril provokes an immediate wash of empathy for her characters, who seem at first like victims. The portraitist's pregnant wife is pulled away from him. The chef is ripped from his routine too. The barber's "glass box" has been shattered.

But it quickly becomes clear how much their routine was a ritual worship of power. The barber, for instance, originally had schemed to murder the big man (the President had killed his brother), but each day he held the sharpened razor, he hesitated, choosing instead to caress the President's neck.

The portraitist is so grateful for having full-time work that he too had decided to overlook the President's misdeeds. "I knew the shade of his skin," he says, "the hue of his hair, the pinkness of the half-moons in his nails. After he'd arrived, and was seated, I'd adjust the colors slightly, according to his mood: If it had been a bad week, his skin tone needed more yellow; if he was feeling benevolent, I added a daub of blue to the white for his eyes."

Dovey's debut has a profound understanding of the way a dictator's monomania enforces a voluptuous sensuality upon those around him. His subjects are watching him, tending to him, grooming him. Everyone in this book is ultimately seduced by these rituals. Then, when they are cut free of them after the coup, this erotic energy refracts back upon themselves.

You might think in the post-coup world that these characters would take time to consider their cowardice. But they are too busy thinking of themselves -- of love, of sex. The chef, for example, who would have much rather crept up on a choice piece of abalone than murder the president, spends his time reminiscing about his previous lovers.

"Blood Kin" notches up a brooding, simmering tension, which turns to a boil when Dovey begins narrating from the perspectives of several different women: the chef's daughter, the barber's brother's fiancé, and the portraitist's wife.

The spectacle of dictatorial power seems to have filtered down into their lives in a similar way as it did with the men; even the first gunshots of the coup have an erotic vibration. "I think we all secretly like those kinds of mini-catastrophes that let us off the hook for a few hours or days," says the chef's daughter.

What is more important, who is in office or who is in your bed? For the characters of this book, it's the latter, even if the bed is your parent's bed. The chef's daughter describes how her father's sexual betrayal of her mother led to a kind of emotional coup for her: "It was a slow process of deflation," she writes, "a long, tedious, dragged-out series of small disappointments in him that at this stage in my life add up to something substantial."

"Blood Kin" doesn't entirely deliver on the substantial. Its ending feels forced, and the voices of the characters begin to blend together. Still, these flaws feel easy to forgive. Dovey's 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 is the president of the National Book Critics Circle and is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner. He lives in New York City.

  • BLOOD KIN

    By: Ceridwen Dovey.

    Publisher: Viking, 183 pages, $23.95.

    Review: A fablelike, sophisticated treatment of how power seduces and how we are all seduced by it.

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