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Originally published Friday, March 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

A despot infects inner circle in "Blood Kin"

Chilly, elegant and cruel, this debut novel from a young South African writer is a stark meditation on absolute power's ability to corrupt...

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Ceridwen Dovey reads from "Blood Kin," 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

Chilly, elegant and cruel, this debut novel from a young South African writer is a stark meditation on absolute power's ability to corrupt anyone who comes into contact with it, no matter how humble the connection.

Set in an imaginary dictatorship marked by political instability, Ceridwen Dovey's "Blood Kin" (Viking, 183 pp., $23.95) focuses on half a dozen characters linked to a ruthless dictator.

The book seems at first to be a study of what might be called "Leni Riefenstahl Syndrome": the mind-set of gifted talents so intent on the aesthetics of their trades that, like Hitler's infamous filmmaker, they ignore the true nature of the master they're serving. When their leader is ousted, Dovey's three alternating narrators — a barber, a portraitist and a chef — are held hostage by the handsome military commander who takes his place, and they're completely bewildered as to why. They were, as they see it, just doing their jobs.

At its midway point, "Blood Kin" fractures into something still more complicated, throwing three additional narrators into the mix, as indicated by its alternating chapter titles. ("His Portraitist," "His Chef" and "His Barber" become "His Portraitist's Wife," "His Chef's Daughter" and "His Barber's Brother's Fiancée.") Sexual bargaining, sexual betrayal and feral family ties enter the picture — and all bets as to story outcome are off.

There isn't much more to say about the book's plot. The impressive thing here is the pulse of Dovey's phrasing and her mastery of detail. Here is "His Portraitist" describing his daily routine, as he works on his latest painting of the President in the book's opening chapter:

"I always mixed my palette before he arrived. I knew the shade of his skin, 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 of his eyes. He said having his picture painted was his only therapy."

The craft that goes into the enterprise, Dovey makes clear, trumps any ethical concerns about the nature of the task. And the complicity of artist and subject, when it comes to mutual use of one another, is complete.

Dovey pulls off similar touches with the culinary exquisitries of "His Chef" ("completely lost ... in the logistics of preparing a meal") and the shaving-and-grooming sensuosities of "His Barber" ("When the haircut was over their whole bodies buzzed and they felt like a lobe of their brain had been hypnotized").

As the women enter the foreground of the book's second half, the novel becomes more like a fugue, with clandestine links between characters being revealed and tidbits of survival philosophy tossed out. "There is a delicate line," the Chef's daughter declares, "between knowing too little (ignorance) and knowing too much (perversity)."

The landscape and climate of Dovey's imaginary country have a palpable reality on the page. And her ability to enter the minds of her more jaded, unscrupulous characters is a little frightening for an author her age (she's still in her 20s).

Occasionally the world-weariness she imposes on some of her creations borders on the pat: "People stop caring when they get old," the portraitist's wife declares. "There are no more mysteries to solve; you know what job you've chosen, whether you've had children ... whether your face wrinkled at the eyes or the mouth first."

But for the most part "Blood Kin" navigates the rigors and perversities of its chosen territory with frightening precision and aplomb.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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