Saturday 23 June 2018
#CBR Book 48: "Kindred" by Octavia E. Butler
Rating: 5 stars
In what must be the most frightening birthday surprise ever, on Dana's 26th birthday, as she is moving into a new house with her husband Kevin, she suddenly feels dizzy and gets transported away from her safe and familiar surroundings in 1976. She comes to in the woods by a river, where a boy is in the process of drowning. Dana reacts instinctively and wades into the water, rescuing the boy. Faced with the boy's hysterical mother, and more terrifyingly, the boy's angry father, who points a rifle at her, Dana is suddenly back with her husband. She might have believed that she hallucinated the whole thing, except she's wet and muddy and bruised after being pummelled by the boy's hysterical mother.
It doesn't take long before it happens again. Now Dana is transported into an old house, and has to put out a fire in some curtains. While it's barely been a few hours for Dana in 1976, the boy she rescued in the river has clearly aged a few years. Not only that, he lives in the early 19th Century, in Maryland, long before slavery was abolished. While the boy, Rufus, gets increasingly older with each new encounter, barely any time passes in Dana's present between each new and terrifying time jump. She's unable to relax and enjoy her life, never sure when she may be suddenly dragged back through time. She begins keeping supplies with her in a bag, tied to her body, and her visits in the past seem to last longer with each new encounter.
At first Dana, who is a young black woman, cannot understand what connects her to this white man, but as she learns more about him and where he's from, she figures out that he must be one of her ancestors and something inexplicable is drawing her to him every time he is in danger. She needs to make sure he stays alive long enough to father the girl who will pass on Dana's family line. With each consecutive stay in the past, Dana's own life is further endangered, and there is the very real and scary possibility that she might die, trying to ensure that she ever gets born in the first place.
Kindred was the June 2018 CBR book club selection, one of the most highly rated books in the history of the site (I suspect its average rating has gone up even more now, with more people reading or re-reading it). My copy was given to me during the CBR gift exchange last year, and I was very excited when it was picked for the book club. I've long wanted to read something by Octavia E. Butler, and this, while nominally science fiction, seemed a lot more like historical fiction with a twist to me. Readers of my reviews know that while I do occasionally find the odd sci-fi book that I really enjoy, it's still one of the genres I keep having to challenge myself to keep trying and more often than not, it doesn't entirely work. But historical fiction with some time travel - that's pretty much Outlander. In addition, I am always aware that I should read more diversely. I'm a middle class white woman, I need to read books by individuals from different cultural, racial and religious background than my own.
While I didn't classify it as such in my tags, this book could clearly have been tagged as suspense. Dana's initial jump into the past is quick and doesn't get too scary, but with each subsequent encounter between her and Rufus, the stakes get higher. By the second visit, Dana figures out that it's danger to Rufus that makes him call her to him in the past, but it takes her a bit longer to understand that it's danger to herself that sends her back forward to her own time. Interestingly, as she spends more time in the past and gets accustomed to the brutality then, it takes more and more to send her home, as she comes to learn just how resilient her body actually is.
It's never explained how Dana comes to be jumped through time, but she learns quickly that whatever she touches at the time is sent back with her and in one particularly dramatic incident, her husband Kevin is sent back with her. Because Kevin is white, everyone in the past (many of whom are not entirely sure what to think of Dana, who is certainly not like the other downtrodden black people - most of whom are slaves - and her strange comings and goings, appearing to barely age) believes him to be Dana's owner. While the idea upsets and disgusts both of them, they figure that it's just easier to go with that story than try to explain their real relationship. Shockingly, Dana is transported back to 1976 without Kevin and while their separation is "only" eight days for her, more than five years have passed for him when she returns. Because the whole story is told from Dana's point of view, we don't learn too much of what Kevin experienced in that long and no doubt harrowing separation.
Dana is an educated and enlightened woman in 1976. Both she and her husband are writers and think they are fairly well informed about history and slavery. Yet Dana quickly discovers that reading about her enslaved ancestors and observing, and in parts, living as a slave is something completely different. Then there's the horrible fact that she needs to ensure that Rufus lives long enough to father the child who will continue the line down to Dana herself. The woman who is to birth the child starts out as a free woman, Alice, who loves someone else, yet Dana needs to pretty much support the enslavement and subjugation of this woman, to ensure that she herself will be born in the future. It's an unthinkable dilemma and naturally does a number on her.
I couldn't quite read this book in one sitting, but every time I picked it up, I found myself reading for longer than I should because I just had to find out what scary and unthinkable thing was going to happen next. Dana is a very engaging protagonist and each of her involuntary visits to the past are contained in separate chapters. Neither she nor the reader knows how long it will be until she's called back and that provides extra impetus to keep reading. Dana's experiences in the past, observing slavery firsthand and coming to both understand and feel personally the effects it had on people, the sad corruption of Rufus (from a little boy who is friends with black children, both enslaved and free to a selfish, petty man who will willingly enslave one of the companions of his childhood) - it all affected me on a deep level. I understand now why this is such an acclaimed book, both among critics and readers in general. I will absolutely be trying more of Ms Butler's books in the future.
Judging a book by its cover: This is the cover of my paperback and as always, books done in black, white and red are very striking and eye catching. There's the hands reaching across the cover, one man's and one woman's. Do they belong to Dana and Kevin? Or Dana and Rufus? Or Rufus and Alice? Alice and her husband's? There are several possibilities. There's the white links, evoking chains. I like the cover a lot.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.