I'm a bit perverse when it comes to books and hype: the more vaunted the read, the more determined I am to approach it with scepticism. That's the reason I am one of the only people I know who didn't enjoy the much-loved Life of Pi a few years ago.
It's also the reason I was curious about Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey. Not only is Dovey extremely young (still in her twenties), this is also her first book. Throw in the fact that it's been nominated for – and won – two of South Africa's most prestigious literary prizes, including the 2008 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the 2007 University of Johannesburg Prize for Creative Writing (as well as a shortlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize), and it's easy to see why I almost didn't want the book to be as good as everyone says it is.
But it is. Blood Kin lays bare the very basest of human emotions: vanity, avarice, hunger for power, betrayal and hypocrisy. That might make it sound like your average episode of Days of Our Lives, but let me mention quickly that it's also an elegant read.
The story is intense and dramatic: it's set in the palace of a recently deposed President. Here, we're introduced to the people who have been closest to the fallen power: his portraitist, his barber and his chef. In addition to being caught up in the President's crisis, each character is embroiled in personal turmoil, and Dovey introduces them to us in a way that cuts to the quick – there are no frills or fuss, but neither is anything wanting. This is typical of Dovey's style: she's a craftsman, and her prose spins emotion effortlessly.
It's not only the writing that will keep you hooked, though: it's the feeling that you're peeking in at Dovey's characters in a Big Brother kind of way, seeing black spots that they're possibly not aware of themselves. Or perhaps they are indeed aware of their flaws, and what's shocking is not the existence of the foibles, but how they accept, almost embrace them, without excuse – a novel concept in our sugar coated, cure-it-with-therapy world, and one that shifts malignancy from the outrageous to the everyday.
Most shocking, though, is the story's astonishing climax; an ending that makes the book as satisfying as a Sunday roast. It's one of those books that trap the mind between its pages long after the cover is closed.