Viking Flights of Fiction
Winter 2008
Cover image of Blood Kin
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Blood Kin

A Novel
Ceridwen Dovey

Told through alternating first-person narratives, Dovey's debut is a welcome addition to the important tradition of allegorical writing about political upheaval and personal guilt

In a nameless country in an unspecified era, a president has been unseated by a military coup. His barber, chef, and portraitist are taken hostage in a remote palace. Up until now, all three have worked with unquestioning loyalty, propping up the president with their benign jobs. Now, as they are commanded to serve their new leader, they begin to examine their roles in the ex-presidentís corrupt regime—and how political influence has rippled outward to impact their relationships with their children, wives, and lovers. No one, it seems, is entirely immune to the temptations of power.

Told through alternating first-person narratives, Ceridwen Doveyís debut novel explores the impact of tyranny on ordinary citizens with simple prose and compelling insight. Blood Kin has a global scope and belongs to the important tradition of allegorical fiction writing about regime change and dictatorship. With parallels to our own troubled times, this clever and engaging story will resonate with fans of J.M. Coetzee, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“A fable of the arrogance of power, beneath whose dreamlike surface swirl currents of complex sensuality.”—J. M. Coetzee

Ceridwen Dovey grew up in South Africa and Australia. A graduate of Harvard University, she is now a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University. Her stories “Vasbyt” and “Coma Karma” were selected for the anthology African Road: New Writing from Southern Africa, judged by J. M. Coetzee. She lives in New York City.

His Portraitist

I should have known, at the last sitting, that something was wrong. The President had changed color—every fiber of him was a tone I hadnít mixed on my palette before—and he scratched around on the settee like a fussy poodle making its nest for the night and wouldnít sit still. He brought his bodyguards up to the studio when normally they waited in the foyer of my apartment building, and his assistant even forgot to collect the petals.

My wife was in the bath, the first ritual of her day, lying dead still, with just her belly protruding, and watching the babyís movements ripple the water. She could lie there for hours, transfixed.

The bodyguards were shot with silenced guns. They simply crumpled where they stood, like puppets a child has lost interest in. The Presidentís assistant, without a word, opened my wardrobe, stepped into it and closed the mirrored door behind him quietly. It was only then that I saw them: two masked gunmen, slick as spiders, with their weapons trained on the President. I dropped my palette and raised my hands in supplication. I could hear my wife murmuring in the bathroom.

They motioned for me to move to the Presidentís side. I sat next to him on the couch, our shoulders touching, with one gunman behind us, while the other moved towards the bathroom door.

“Please.” I only realized later that I whispered this. “Please. Not her.”

He opened the door and for a few seconds stood watching her. I could see into the room from the couch. She didnít turn her head; she thought it was me. The gunman lifted her roughly from the bath in one movement and she stood naked, barefoot on the bathroom floor, screaming my name.

“Put on your dressing gown,” I whispered. “Behind the door. Put it on.” The silk clung to her and darkened around her breasts and stomach as she clutched the gown strings around her waist.

The gunman forced her to walk in front of him, and as she approached me and the President sitting on the settee she dropped to her knees. He pulled her up again just as she was reaching out her arms to me. I strained for hers, but she only managed to grasp the Presidentís hand. She screamed my name but clutched his hand, then she was gone, forced down the stairs and out of the foyer. The assistant wasnít discovered. I wonder if he is still hiding in my closet.

Now we are being held prisoner in one of the guestrooms of the Presidentís Summer Residence—me, his chef and his barber—in a room too high above the ground to contemplate escape. We each have a bed with virgin linen so white I feel guilty sleeping in it, and there is an en-suite bathroom with silver fittings. A man brings bread, water, cheese and tomatoes to our door in the mornings and soup in the evenings. I havenít seen my wife since the day they took us, almost a week ago. I was the first prisoner to be left in the room. They blind-folded me and the President in my apartment, forced us into a vehicle, and drove into the mountains—I know those spiraling roads too well to be fooled; the air thins and you start to drive faster from light-headedness, to overtake and stay for longer than you need to on the wrong side of the road. Those roads bring out the death wish in people. The President and I leaned into each other as the driver took the corners; his body is more pliable than I imagined.

We were separated at the Summer Residence—our blindfolds were removed and he was led away into the building, which I recognized immediately from postcards and magazine spreads; it was declared a national monument last year. I was led up many flights of stairs to the bedroom and left alone. The chef was brought in the afternoon, straight from the Presidentís kitchens, where they were in the middle of making zabaglione for lunchtime dessert. His sous-chef was shot because he tried to sneak out of the delivery entrance, and the kitchen boys had stood gaping as the masked gunman bound the chefís wrists and blindfolded him. He still had dried egg on his hands when he arrived, and immediately ran himself a bath and sat in the bathroom with the door closed for a long time. The barber only arrived at dusk. Heís taken the whole thing quite badly, and eventually talked himself to sleep.

From where I stand on the small balcony, I can see the valley below dimly in the moonlight, the only fertile ground in the country. It must be a new agricultural trend, to farm in circles—the fields are separated into massive green polka dots with a slice of yellow cut out of them, which makes them look like they are devouring each other. My wife and I came wine-tasting in the valley for her birthday, years ago. There were only two vineyards and the wine was close to awful, but once we were in the valley basin we felt newly created. It was summer and the hot air had collected at the bottom, and as we descended the mountain road to the valley base we peeled off layers of clothing; another layer for each drop in altitude, until we were almost naked and sweating and even the bad wine was soothing.

The vineyard owner took us on a tour of the cellars and told us the monks had used underground caves to store their wine for hundreds of years, but gradually the caves were forgotten until a farmer out with a pack of hunting dogs stumbled upon one of the openings. He grandly revealed cobwebbed caskets of the original monksí wine, rendered undrinkable by years of imprisonment within glass; my wife persuaded him to let us smell it and it seemed to burn the hairs within my nostrils.

The chef is snoring like a stalling motor boat. Something else is bothering me, though, some noise of distress beneath the night sounds from the room, menís voices playing hide-and-seek. I trace them to the air vent above my bed, and stand on the mattress with my ear against the cold metal mesh.

—from Blood Kin

release date: March 2008