How do you evaluate a book that fails to meet its structural conceit? This is a problem for anyone reviewing Ceridwen Dovey's Blood Kin. Dovey wrote a book from three perspectives--the chef, the barber, and the portraitist of a dictator--about the intersection between the fall and rise of dictators in an unnamed foreign country. The problem is one of perspective. Had Dovey written the book in the third person, it would work. Instead, she tasked herself with telling three concurrent first person narratives. There is nothing beyond plot details and character backgrounds to distinguish the voices. If you removed the tags that start the chapter, you wouldn't know who was telling their story because they all sound exactly the same. The only real distinction is what they're doing. The cook will mention food, the barber beauty, and the portraitist art in every chapter.
This is a shame. Blood Kin otherwise has an interesting story to tell. The three men were so isolated by the previous leader's regime that they didn't even know a revolution was brewing. They spend the rest of the novel finding out just what, exactly, their beloved employer did to result in a bloody coup. Their lives are forced together in uncomfortable ways as the new president boards them in the same room without access to their friends and families.
Worse still, Dovey has a beautiful voice. She has a great eye for detail and isn't afraid to go for unpleasant details if they're the easiest way to get the image across.
I have the rolling pin in my hand--it is time to creep up on the abalone and surprise them with a death blow She watches me walk the length of the kitchen toward the darkened pantry; I tiptoe the last few steps for dramatic effect and then crouch above them. Three I kill before they contract, but the last realizes what is coming and stiffens. I will have to throw it out.
If the only issue was the unvarying voice, Blood Kin would be a better book than it is. Unfortunately, the characters become obsessed not with the intriguing mystery of the shift in leadership but the fate of their lovers and wives. They use those relationships to learn more about the coup, true, but everything focuses on the romance. It becomes all consuming in the novel. It might be more realistic for the trapped men to worry about their loved ones, but it does not make for a particularly compelling book when a revolution is happening.
Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey had the potential to be a great novel. Unfortunately, the misguided structural conceit and the focus on romance over the main narrative drags it down.
Cross-posted at Cannonball Read IV
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