The corrupt president of an unnamed land has been deposed, and three of the men closest to him his barber, chef, and portraitist are held captive by a seductive new leader, the Commander. In short, vivid chapters, the prisoners account for themselves, and their testimony is later fleshed out or contradicted by the important women in their lives. In a slim, sharp first novel, Blood Kin, South Africa-born writer Ceridwen Dovey approaches politics through sexuality, forcefully underlining the unsettling ways in which the two are linked.
The chef, for instance, is a chilly lothario, his actions in both the bedroom and the potentate's kitchen unerringly self-serving. The portraitist, on the other hand, has always opted to play the fool. ''If I am exempt from one thing as an artist, surely it is knowing what my government is doing,'' he explains, willfully ignoring not just the misdeeds of his evil boss but also those of his own dreadful wife.
Parables can be deadeningly vague. Although none of the characters have names, Dovey's novel is refreshingly spiky and precise, its insights startling and original (''I used to wonder why they called it blind ambition because I know my eyes were wide open while I clawed my way up,'' says the chef). This is one fable that is short on general principles, long on hard-edged specifics. A–