Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2019

Blood Kin (2007), by Ceridwen Dovey

Blood Kin (2007) is the hugely impressive debut novel of Sydney author Ceridwen Dovey, whose fiction I discovered when I recently read and reviewed In the Garden of the Fugitives (2018). And it’s not just me who’s impressed: Blood Kin was published in 15 countries, and shortlisted for the 2007 Dylan Thomas Prize.  Dovey was also selected for the 2009 US National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ honours list, and the Wall Street Journal named her as one of their ‘artists to watch.’  I see also from Dovey’s website that Blood Kin has been adapted for stage in Germany and I’m not surprised.  It would make an excellent film too.

Set in an unnamed country which hints at Latin America, Blood Kin is about power, and how even a small taste of it arouses the worst human instincts.  The book (an economical 185 pages) is in three parts, narrated in first person by six unnamed characters:

  • Part I: the three men taken into custody after a coup: the President’s portraitist; the President’s barber; and the President’s chef;
  • Part II: three women connected with the three men (in ways more than they know): the barber’s brother’s fiancée; the chef’s daughter; and the portraitist’s wife;
  • Part III: the aftermath: the barber; the portraitist and finally the chef.

The three men take to their detention in different ways, depending on the power they can wield.  The new Commander shows his power by treating them well: he has plans for them all. So, surprisingly, they share the luxury of the guestrooms of the President’s Summer Residence, and though the food is rudimentary they are fed twice daily.

But the terror of the coup is obvious: the sous-chef was shot because he tried to escape.  The chef, however, adapts quickly to cooking gourmet delicacies for the Commander who has taken over.  Even in this situation the chef  has power: of course they can search him for dangerous implements and they can supervise his cooking, but just as he knows how to prevent food poisoning he knows how to cause it too, undetected…

The barber has reason to support the coup because his brother was shot under the President’s regime.  He had, in fact, inveigled his way into the President’s employ to avenge his brother.  Barbers, after all, with their scissors and razors, have every man they serve temporarily in their power… but this one creates trust by insinuating a little sensuality into what is an intimate procedure.  He wanted to lull the President into a false sense of security but each day he could not find the will to slit his throat.

Both the chef and the barber can only exercise their power at some risk to themselves.

The portraitist saw the President’s bodyguards shot.  They simply crumpled where they stood, like puppets a child has lost interest in.  He is distraught because he has been separated from his pregnant wife and, powerless to protect her, he is not even allowed to see her.  But even he has power, though it’s of a different kind:

I know that a portrait is one of the trappings of power, that each one I painted increased the President’s control by a fraction; that the image of him, freshly rendered in oils, hanging in Parliament, had some value outside of itself, that it strengthened his legitimacy, and it will do the same for this man sitting before me.  (p.78)

The connections between these three and the women are revealed in the women’s narration.  They are less pragmatic, more willing to take risks, and also more judgemental.  The barber’s brother’s fiancée, for instance, thinks he is a traitor because he didn’t take the opportunity to kill the President.  All three of them have power too, but no one should spoil this meticulously crafted plot by revealing how they exercise it.

Other reviews are at Book Forum (where you can also see a startlingly different cover image of the book).

Author: Ceridwen Dovey
Title: Blood Kin
Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia, 2015, 185 pages, first published by Atlantic Books 2007.
ISBN: 9780143573470
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:Blood Kin $20.45


  1. Sounds excellent. I’ve borrowed In the Garden of the Fugitives from the library based on your review of that one, but alas I currently have readers block (my bandwidth has been exceeded thanks to new job 🙄) so not sure when I will get to it.


    • Ah well, the book will keep until things settle a bit at work:)


  2. Hi Lisa. A fascinating read. I must borrow it.


  3. […] Blood Kin, by Ceridwen Dovey […]


  4. […] Blood Kin, by Ceridwen Dovey […]


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