Sitting down to reflect on Blood Kin, Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, I realized that there are many ways to approach a book, and a review, and that in this particular case, circumstances have handed me one. Dovey was a classmate of mine in college and when I saw that she’d published a book, I went out to get it with a combination of curiosity and jealousy, excited that a peer had written a novel and interested to see what provocations, over something of a shared span of time, had moved her to write.The book is set in an anonymous country, in the immediate aftermath of a military coup, through which the President and his closest associates have been taken captive in the presidential summer retreat by a man known only as the Commander, a strutting cryptic figure who has usurped their power. In design, Blood Kin recalls Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the two sharing a cloistered, claustrophobic setting which frees the characters temporarily from the violence that prompted their situation, and yet which threatens, inevitably, to destroy it. There is also a common attention to the ancillary trades which attend power. Bel Canto spun around the sublime talent of soprano Roxanne Coss. Blood Kin directs its attention to more mundane, but no less potent roles, the President’s barber, his portraitist, and his chef, the three of whom trade off first-person control of the narrative.It’s a promising set-up, which makes it all the more disappointing that over the course of 180 pages, it does not really go anywhere. The premise, and the small points of action which occur in turn, are used mainly as jumping off points from which the characters recall moments from the past, their own idiosyncrasies, former lovers, and remaindered sensations of childhood. Early in the book the barber escapes for a late night tryst with the Commander’s wife, an episode that might be filled with tension and sensuality, but which deflates under the weight of the barber’s long recollection of how he came into the trade and came to serve the president. A scant portion of the chapter is devoted to the actual present-tense unrolling of events, which makes what action there is feel almost beside the point.The problem is not that the digressions are poorly written or awkwardly conceived. In fact, they are often quite imaginative and authentic, standing solidly on their own as the peculiar ways in which a life might have been lived. When the portraitist recalls a scene from his youth, of a child building sand animals on the beach using an empty dishwashing detergent bottle, it rings true as one of those unexplainable things which stick in memory after so much else has been forgotten. And Dovey’s digressions about each tradesman at work are knowing and confident. She describes the thick patina of paint which has accrued on the portraitist’s palette, the glancing touch by which the barber infuses physical pleasure into his haircuts, and the experienced way the chef stalks prone abalones, sneaking up on them with a rolling pin so as to kill them by surprise, before they can stiffen in fright.One challenge of the first novel, I imagine, is getting free from all the thoughts, images, and experiences you as a writer have collected prior to beginning to write. Blood Kin never begins to feel autobiographical, but it does at times feel like a repository of the many little set-pieces and conceits that must have occurred to Dovey throughout her life, prior to the specific conception of this story. While the component parts are good, they don’t build together, so that by the end of the book, our understanding of the characters compares with the advancement of the plot; they both lie more or less in the same place we began.
Coinciding with the start of the PEN World Voices Festival, Tuesday’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series in Brooklyn features three internationally acclaimed novelists. Francisco Goldman (The Ordinary Seaman), Anne Landsman (The Rowing Lesson), and Ceridwen Dovey (Blood Kin) will read from works set in Guatemala, South Africa, and an unnamed dictatorship. In honor of Mr. Goldman’s latest, a work of nonfiction, the theme for the evening is “Art, Politics, and Murder.” The event is free. (For more information, see Time Out.)[As Mr. Goldman has blurbed two of The Millions’ favorite books, it seems fitting to offer a bonus link to his fantastic 2003 essay, “In the Shadow of the Patriarch,” featuring cameos from Gabriel García Márquez and Alvaro Mutis, as well as early praise for Roberto Bolaño. ¡Buen apetito!]
With 2007 in the rear view mirror, we now look ahead to a new year of reading, one packed with intriguing titles.Let’s kick off with a pair that Garth was already pining for a year ago:Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) won the Prix Goncourt and was a runaway bestseller in France. Not bad for a novel that runs over 900 pages. The Kindly Ones has been generating buzz on this continent for a while now, with Forbes asking “2008’s Hottest Book?” back in 2006. The delay, of course, is the translation, which many have suggested is quite an undertaking for this complex volume. Literature-in-translation headquarters, The Literary Saloon, meanwhile, has been following the progress, and recent accounts indicate that the going is slow. Many readers are hoping to get their hands on this one in 2008, but my sources at HarperCollins tell me 2009 is a likelier bet. Of course, you could read it in French.The other book, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (we were 600 years off when we wrote about it last year), also lacks a release date, but its arrival seems somewhat more tangible in that the translator has at least been identified – it’s Natasha Wimmer. Late last month she told the Times’ book blog that she was just finishing up. She added, “Long stretches of the novel are set on the Mexico-U.S. border and inside a prison. And that’s not all. Bolano really gives the translator a workout. I also researched Black Panther history, pseudo-academic jargon (actually, some of that came naturally), World War II German army terminology, Soviet rhetoric, boxing lingo, obscure forms of divination and forensic science vocabulary, among other things. If that makes the novel sound like a hodgepodge, I promise it’s not. Even the most obscure detours are thoroughly Bolano-ized – filtered through his weird, ominous, comic worldview.” The Spanish speakers among us can already have this one in hand if they want.Already out or coming soon: 2006’s surprise Pulitzer winner for March, Geraldine Brooks, has another novel out that draws from both literary and literal history. Last time it was the Civil War and Little Women, with The People of the Book, it’s World War II and the Sarajevo Haggadah. If you want to learn more about the famed Haggadah and the real-life events that inspired Brooks’ novel, there was a recent New Yorker story on the topic (which is sadly not available online.)Roddy Doyle’s new collection of stories, The Deportees, includes one that revisits characters from his iconic novel The Commitments. Of the collection, The Independent writes, “Charm and animation are the qualities that count with Doyle’s deportees, as he goes about sticking up for disparaged incomers in a context of Dublin demotic exuberance.”Adam Langer decamps Chicago, the stomping ground of his last two novels, for his new book Ellington Boulevard, “an ode to New York” according to the catalog copy. The book, says The Daily News, “tells the story of one apartment before, during and after the boom years in city real estate. 2B is on W. 106th St. and a new landlord is looking to make a killing.”February: Lauren Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton arrives on the scene with a nice boost from Stephen King, who way back last summer had this to say about the book in Entertainment Weekly: “The sense of sadness I feel at the approaching end of The Monsters of Templeton isn’t just because the story’s going to be over; when you read a good one – and this is a very good one – those feelings are deepened by the realization that you probably won’t tie into anything that much fun again for a long time.” That taken together with novel’s first line – “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” – is enough to pique the interest of many a reader, I’d imagine.In keeping with the theme of debut novels with impressive backers, Ceridwen Dovey, who grew up in South Africa and Australia, scored blurbs from J.M. Coetzee and Colum McCann for Blood Kin, which PW describes as “a parable of a military coup as told by the ex-president’s barber, portraitist and chef.” It sounds like it may share some territory with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Another novel of a regime and its hangers on.In The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt has crafted an “imagining of an unlikely friendship between the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla and a young chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker where Tesla lives out his last days,” according to the publisher’s catalog description. Hunt was one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” in 2006. We can report that, anecdotally at least, the book is generating some interest. When we requested a galley from Houghton Mifflin a few weeks ago, we were told they were all gone.March: Tobias Wolff has a handsome volume of “New and Selected” stories on the way, Our Story Begins. The title story appeared in a 1985 collection, Back in the World, reviewed here by Michiko Kakutani.April: Interesting coincidence: Richard Bausch recently told Washington Post readers about his new novel, “It’s called Peace, and is set in Italy, near Mt. Cassino, in the terrible winter of 1944. Based on something my father told me long ago.” Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been reading about the battles that raged around Cassino in the winter of 1944, in Rick Atkinson’s excellent history of the liberation of Italy, Day of Battle. I would imagine there’s much for Bausch to draw from there.Keith Gessen, of n+1 fame will see his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, published in April. The LA Times, naming Gessen a “writer to watch,” offers back handed half-compliments, calling the book “a novel about, well, other bookish, male, Ivy League-schooled bohos in New York — their burning literary, academic and journalistic ambition, their pain. It’s a powerfully intelligent book that stylistically falls somewhere between a narcissistic wallow and a Tom Perrotta-style satire.” That may or may not be too harsh, as Gessen and company seem to inspire snark wherever they tread, but if anything, the discussion surrounding the book may be as fun to read as the book itself.Esteemed host of The Elegant Variation and friend of The Millions, Mark Sarvas will deliver his long awaited debut, Harry, Revised in April. He’s been keeping us up to date on his blog.Andrew Sean Greer also has a new book out in April, The Story of a Marriage. It’s set in 1950s San Francisco.You may have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Year’s End” in the year end New Yorker fiction issue. It’ll be collected with several other stories in Unaccustomed EarthMay: James Meek blew me away in 2006, with his odd and fantastical historical novel, A People’s Act of Love, which immersed readers in a world of post World War I Czech soldiers marooned in Siberian Yazyk among a mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. And let’s not forget the escaped convict who claims he is being pursued by a cannibal. Meek is back in May with a much more conventional sounding effort, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, about a journalist in the Afghan mountains covering the post-9/11 war and then back, trying to make sense of the “real” world upon his return.Tim Winton is a big name among Australian readers but not so much in the States. However, his rough-edged characters and windswept, lonely landscapes will transport nearly any reader to the remoter parts of Australia with ease. His latest, Breath, coming in May, offers big-wave surfers “on the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia.”June: Regular New Yorker readers may recognize the name Uwem Akpan. The Nigerian-born native of Zimbabwe landed a coveted spot in the Debut Fiction Issue in 2005 for his story “An Ex-Mas Feast,” and he was back again 2006 with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Both stories appear in his forthcoming debut collection, Say You’re One of Them, which seems likely to fit in well with the mini-boom of African literature that we’ve seen over the last few years.Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming novel The Enchantress of Florence sounds very ambitious. Here’s a description from the Guardian: “Machiavellian intrigues of international high politics are scarcely the preserve of our century alone and in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, the original master of unscrupulous strategy takes a starring role. This seductive saga links the Mughal empire with the Renaissance by way of an Indian princess, Lady Black Eyes, who finds herself central to the power struggles of 16th-century Florence. A virtuoso feat of storytelling, Rushdie’s novel also reflects on the dangers that come when fantasy and reality grow too intertwined.”July: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children’s Hospital. That novel’s ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection’s title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006.Western Haruki Murakami fans may have heard that another of his books has been translated. This one is a memoir titled – with a casual reference to another literary giant Raymond Carver – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On his blog Ted Mahsun notes, “The book is about his experience running in marathons. He’s quite the accomplished runner, having run in the Boston, New York and Tokyo marathons, amongst others. I didn’t think it would get translated into English since a lot of Murakami’s non-fiction which have been published in Japan gets ignored by his translators.” It’s Murakami’s only other non-fiction to appear in English besides UndergroundAugust: Paul Theroux is ready to tell us about another of his epic train rides in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar. “Thirty years after his classic The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux revisits Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India, China, Japan, and Siberia.”Date undetermined: Garth enjoyed Gregoire Bouillier’s “refreshingly odd voice” in his quirky memoir The Mystery Guest. Another memoir, Report on Myself, which won the Prix de Flore in France is forthcoming in spring 2008, but a release date has not yet been indicated.Tell us about your most anticipated books in the comments.