Books Read in 2021 – 21 Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, Moves between past and present

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1979

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Dana lives in California in 1976. Just after her 26th birthday, she is pulled back to the time of slavery to save the life of Rufus, a white boy who is drowning. Over the next few weeks, she is dragged back in time again and again, always to save his life. It transpires that Rufus is her ancestor and she must keep him alive in order for her ancestral line to be created.

Time on shelf: I was given this for Christmas by a friend who had just read it. It is a book I was aware of but hadn’t got round to purchasing myself.

I really thought I’d enjoy this more. In some ways, I feel I should give it two ratings as it felt almost like reading two books. First of all, I would give 5 out of 5 for the idea of the time travel and the way that Butler put across the way that the trauma of slavery still affects black people in the present day. However, I did not enjoy the execution of the idea and I found it hard to suspend my disbelief.

First the good, then. Dana learns a lot about her ancestry over the course of her visits back to save Rufus’ life. She hadn’t known that she had any white ancestors as her family bible with all the names of her ancestors in it didn’t go back that far. It becomes apparent that Rufus has raped the woman that will become Dana’s ancestor. This is uncomfortable for Dana as her existence is based on the rape of another women and she becomes complicit in arranging for Rufus and Alice to be together. It is also uncomfortable for the reader to realise that this repressed trauma is at the centre of African American experience. It brings to the fore things that America would rather forget, forcing the reader to confront uncomfortable truths about slavery and Black experience.

There is an interesting parallel between Dana’s relationship with her white husband, Kevin in the present day and the relationships between master and slave in the past. In the present day, Dana has chosen her husband, enjoys having sex with him and he has rejected his racist family in order to be with her. When they are both pulled into the past, their dynamic changes. They have to play the role of master and slave as they were not allowed to be married. The difference in their treatment on the plantation brings home the difference in their status compared to the modern day where they view themselves as equals.

In some ways, to complain about this book at all seems like petty nitpicking but, for me, it was nowhere near perfect. I found the way Rufus and the slaves accepted the appearance and disappearance of Dana quite ridiculous. It irritated me all the way through. In truth, I’m not sure what Butler could have done that would have solved this problem but it did spoil my reading somewhat.

I didn’t really take to Dana or Kevin. Not that there is that much character development. The focus here is on history and its effects and maybe that is fair enough given the issues that Butler is trying to address. Still, I found it unfulfilling as a novel or a story. It is much better as an exploration of the ways race, gender and power intersect and the way that history doesn’t stay in the past but still effects our daily lives.

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