I’m participating in the Octavia Butler Slow Readalong, a two-year project where a group of people read thorugh the works of the late great Octavia E. Butler. Having read only one of her books before (Wild Seed), I had certain expectations for this one. I expected a tough, slow read with heavy topics and a focus on character development. And while the topics are definitely tough to read about – this is about slavery – I found myself flying thorugh the pages of this book in no time at all.
by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Headline, 2014 (1979)
eBook: 306 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 55 minutes
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.
She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.
The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland—a very dangerous place for a black woman—the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.
This is such an amazing book! I don’t expect to be forming a lot of coherent sentences in this review, not least because my perspective is that of a White woman living in Europe and slavery, while taught at schools, has never been a topic that’s been much discussed in my life. We have our own dark history here in Austria that’s featured much more prominently in schools but this doesn’t keep me from wanting to educate myself and learn more about humanity’s past as a whole. And because fiction has always been my best teacher, I picked up Kindred.
Octavia Butler doesn’t waste much time before beginning with the story that’s promised in the synopsis. Dana, a young Black woman, lives in 1976 with her White husband Kevin, and is suddenly yanked back in time, only to find herself in an unknown place where a little White boy is in the process of drowning. Naturally, she helps him and saves his life. Then she just reappears in her own apartment where her husband says she vanished for a few seconds and randomly popped up in a different part of their home. Neither of them can quite believe what has happened, but these strange events are far from over. Dana jumps through time again, this time to meet a slightly older version of Rufus, the boy she saved. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that this boy is her own ancestor and while his father is a slave owner and exactly the kind of despicable you’d expect, Rufus is still young and can maybe be taught kindness yet. It is also his fault Dana is being drawn back in time whenever his life is in danger. Not that he knows how he’s doing it, but whenever his life is threatened, Dana appears and does her best to save him.
Things start going really wrong when Dana takes her husband Kevin with her on one of those time jumps. On the one hand, having a White man by her side to protect her from a decidedly hostile society is a good thing. On the other hand, her and Kevin have to integrate enough into that society so as not to be suspicious. So they pretend to be slave and slave owner and although it’s just make-believe, that doesn’t keep Dana from being treated like a slave, or Kevin from pretend-talking like a slave owner… And then there’s the problem that Dana never knows when (or if) she is going to return to her own time. All she knows is that she has to touch Kevin in order to take him back with her.
That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the plot, but there is much more to come after that. I found this book incredibly fascinating for many different reasons. The most obvious one is of course the way Butler talks about and has her characters deal with slavery. Dana is a modern woman who knows about slavery but of course, it’s quite different when you’re suddenly living it, seeing it firsthand, watching people you’ve come to befriend suffer terrible hardships without a chance at ever gaining their freedom. Which leads me to the other thing I found so impressive.
While you could call this an “issue book”, one that deals with Black pain, Butler’s use of language almost works against that classification. Neither the words she chooses to tell the story nor her protagonist ever feel like they’re falling down into a depressed spiral, lingering on the suffering of of the people in this book, or using the terrible things that happen for shock value. If you’re looking for torture porn, you’ll have to find a different book.
I loved Dana, who goes from knowing in theory what slavery was like to actually understanding it over the course of this book. Compared to the other slaves on the Weylin’s plantation, Dana has it pretty easy. With Kevin as her companion, she doesn’t have to do hard physical labor but is rather employed as a teacher for young Rufus. But that doesn’t keep her from seeing how the other slaves are treated, how they bear the scars of endless whippings and beatings, how they are hunched over from a lifetime of gruelling work. Again, Octavia Butler doesn’t deliver these facts with particularly shocking language. She just lets the story talk for itself and it is utterly heartbreaking. This book comes with trigger warnings for racism (many uses of the n-word), violence, and rape so it’s not exactly an easy book to read when it comes to its content.
But the language itself flows so beautifully that I couldn’t stop reading. Actually, I listened to the audiobook, but you know what I mean. Having read only one other of Butler’s books before, I had expected the language to be more difficult, the atmosphere to be more sinister, but somehow it wasn’t. It was Dana’s narration, her calmness throughout all the horror, that turned this into a book which only unfolds completely in your own mind. We may experience being whipped alongside Dana and while these descriptions are chilling and Dana’s in great pain, she doesn’t linger on it as an event. Instead, her experiences in the past slowly change Dana’s character from a rather carefree young woman to someone always on the lookout for someone who might mean her harm. She watches what she says, she doggedly does her work in order not to stand out, rather than risk another beating – and she comes to understand that it’s not as simple as “just band together and rise up against the White slavers”.
Another interesting aspect is Dana’s relationship with her husband. Due to the circumstances of their time travels, their marriage has to deal with way more than they had planned. Racism from their own families they can deal with, racism in the past they’ve expected. But how spending time in the past, living alongside its people, changes them is something they don’t know how to handle. And let’s not forget that these time jumps don’t happen parallel to the present. When Dana is in the past for a few hours, a few minutes may have passed in her time. She may spend months in the past, only to appear in 1976 again, just a day after she disappeared. This complicates matters even more when she and Kevin are separated, one waiting for the other, with no means of contact or knowing when (or if) they will ever be reunited.
I’ve rambled on about this book for a while now but I still don’t think I got across just what an emotional impact it had on me. I found myself crying quietly to myself several times, not even necessarily during the scenes that were the most brutal, but rather during the quiet conversations Dana has with other slaves, who tell her matter of fact that their children were sold away and they haven’t seen them since they were babies, or how two Black people in love can’t get married and if their master doesn’t like their love, they can just separate them and sell one of them off. These things are mentioned almost by the way but they have lingered in my mind, as much as the brutal phyiscal treatment of Dana and the other slaves.
It feels strange to say I enjoyed this book. But I did! I enjoyed how it made me think, how it showed a period of history through the eyes of a fictional heroine I can feel with, how it made history that much more real, even though the characters are all invented. I may not have enjoyed the plot because I came to care for the characters and wanted them all to be okay and happy, and of course that’s not a realistic hope for slaves during slavery. But I loved how Octavia Butler nudged my mind to look at this topic from different angles, how she included multi-layered White people, how she showed that slaves don’t all agree with each other, that there is envy among them as well as love. I wish I had the ability to express properly how amazing this book really is. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. This one will stick with you!
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!