Kindred

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Kindred, Octavia E. Butler, book reviewDana’s 26th birthday turns out to be the most memorable one of her life. As she and her husband Kevin move into their new apartment, she starts to feel dizzy. Initially thinking it is just due to moving heavy boxes in the heat of a Los Angeles summer, she is soon proved wrong when she falls to her knees…and vanishes in front of Kevin’s eyes. Dana reappears a few seconds later on the other side of the room with a very strange explanation of what happened. She tells of finding herself on a riverbank, with a screaming woman and a young red haired boy drowning in the water in front of her. She pulled the boy out and gave him CPR, but as he started to breathe again, a man with an old-fashioned rifle pointed at her appeared and she found herself back home – with the wet clothes and muddy shoes that seemed to back up her story.

Later that day, it happens again. She finds herself with the same red haired boy, only some years older, who has now managed to have an accident with a candle and set his bedroom curtains on fire. Dana saves him again, but this time stays around long enough to ask him a few questions. She finds out this boy is Rufus Weylin, son of a Maryland plantation owner, and the reason he has candles in his room is that he lives in 1815. That Rufus manages to somehow call Dana to him across time and space in his times of need is remarkable enough, but to Dana the thing that strikes her as being of most importance is the fact that she is now in a slave state at a time when slavery was still very much a reality. As a black woman on her own, she is in a very dangerous situation indeed. Without any papers proving she is a free woman, she too could be taken as a slave, beaten, whipped or threatened without redress – and she doesn’t know how or when (or even if) she can get back to her own time again.

I have written before that I am a sucker for time travel stories of all variety, and Octavia E Butler’s Kindred is one that will certainly live long in my mind. First published in the US in 1979, it has now been rereleased in a new paperback edition in the UK by Headline and is bound to bring this powerful story to a whole new generation of readers. While Dana’s own time is 1976, the book has dated very little; it is only when she talks of using typewriters or going to the library to look something up rather than turning to Google that you realise that this isn’t a brand new release. This is of very little consequence, though, as the majority of the story takes place in early nineteenth century Maryland and it shines a very bright light on a very ugly piece of American history.

The genre of this novel is fluid; Butler was a science fiction writer, but although Kindred involves time travel we are never given an explanation of the science behind what is happening to Dana. Reasons for the time shifts are hinted at tantalisingly, but never elaborated on. Although time travel is at its core, then, this is not a book about the movement through time itself, but about social justice and the cruelties of history. As Butler once said about Kindred, “I think people really need to think what it’s like to have all of society arrayed against you”. The book certainly achieves that – seeing this world through the eyes of a modern woman forced to survive in it brings the message home very clearly indeed.

The writing in Kindred was of a spare, practical nature with little superfluous description to distract you from the main thrust of the plot. At first I found this felt a little awkward (I would have preferred more than a couple of pages to get to know Dana before her first trip into the past), but over the course of the book I began to appreciate it more and see how it suited the story. By the final quarter of the novel I had no trouble in absorbing myself in the text and found it a satisfying story. Be warned that this is no easy read, though. It is hard like a diamond – and perhaps beautiful for the same reason.

Highly recommended.

Kindred by Octavia E Butler
Published by Headline, March 2014
With thanks to the publisher for providing me with this review copy.


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Kindred
by Octavia E Butler

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Written by collingwood21
collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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