South African-Australian Ceridwen Dovey recently won the Australian Readings New Australian Writing Award for her short-story collection Only the Animals. It ‘s surprising that until now Dovey has had a relatively low profile in Australia even though her first novel Blood Kin was praised by the likes of Colum McCann and Coetzee, and won or was shortlisted for numerous international prizes when it was published in 2007.
Blood Kin is a moral fable in the setting of a political coup in an unnamed country, but it’s not just about corrupt government. It’s about power as an amoral human energy sitting at the centre of all our human interactions, co-opting us whether we want to know it or not. As the title suggests, it’s about all of us, not just about political dictators and the people who collude with them.
Dovey quotes Coetzee as one of her influences, and the writing is reminiscent of him in its measured clarity and mercilessness, its grave, unshowy rhythms:
The bedroom has a view out over the city from the balcony: you can see as far as the sea and the stunted palms dotting the concrete parking lots from one side, and from the other the mountains are visible. The air is oppressive, as it always is in the city at this time of year. (94)
The book is narrated in the first part by three men – a barber, a chef and a portrait painter – who work for a dictator overthrown in a coup. Held in confinement while the coup plays out, they take turns telling the story, with each chapter named for the character speaking. One of the most interesting things about the book is Dovey’s choice to make the narrating voices distinguishable from each other only from the content of what they say. They have no names, and there is no attempt to give each voice a characteristic timbre or worked-out characterization. The effect she hoped for, she says, is that readers
would experience reading the characters as members of a Greek chorus-like set, speaking in unison, echoing one another, with a kind of ripple effect.
Paradoxically, while this is one of the book’s strengths – it does create that Greek-chorus effect around the central theme of moral responsibility – it’s also one of its difficulties, particularly as the demands of plot begin to make themselves felt in the second half of the book. Here Dovey introduces three more narrating voices, those of the women in the male characters’ lives. Something of the difficulty is clear in the chapter headings: “his barber’s brother’s fiancee”, “his chef’s daughter”, “his portraitist’s wife”. The clean lines of the first part of the book become increasingly tangled and the energy of the book becomes clogged with the introduction of personal history and motive. The fable-like quality is lost and the book becomes a more conventional psychological drama as Dovey builds the background that will explain why the three men do what they do in the third part of the book. It’s interesting that I had the impression that this section of the book was much longer than the first; in fact it’s slightly shorter. That impression probably comes from the thick weave of plot that’s developed in this part as against the tensile spareness of the first. It feels imbalanced.
Dovey gives every sign of being an important writer, with an ambitious and original imagination and the technical nerve to put it into practice. It’s a book you won’t forget. It reminded, me, though she’s a very different writer, of Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile . A great one for a book group, whether you’re interested in the technicalities of writing or the psychology of human power.
Here’s a good interview with Ceridwen Dovey. (And hasn’t she got a great name?)