Kindred by Octavia E Butler

kindredThis book is the inaugural read for my Jo Walton Book Club. Books I want to read, inspired by Walton’s book of essays, What Makes This Book so Great. By happy coincidence, those nice people at Headline have reissued one of the books that piqued my curiosity most, Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Kindred is a time travel book, though the mechanics of temporal dislocation are largely irrelevant. The point of the book is that a black woman from 1976 travels back to the 1800s, where she interacts with one of her forebears. She travels back in time to save his life. As Kevin is a careless belligerent fellow Dana finds herself a frequent traveller.  Unfortunately, the only way for her to travel back to her own present,  is to come close to death herself. Since Kevin lives when the yoke of slavery gripped the United States, this happens all too frequently.

The story here is almost irrelevant. What’s important about this book is its depiction of slavery and the debilitating effect it had on those held under it. Dana, an upwardly-mobile young woman in her own time, soon finds herself adopting the role of slave, or at least tolerating oppression at a certain level to avoid something else altogether darker and more violent.

Whilst on the surface Kindred is about slavery, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines that to see it’s about oppression generally. The psychological effect of being forced to exist contrary to one’s will, either through violence or emotional pressure is rendered in brutal detail. Butler’s prose is simple yet effective.

As a white middle class male who grew up in the white middle class heartlands of the UK, I am supremely unqualified to comment on many of the issues examined on this book. I have never experienced racism practised against me and never will. None of my ancestors have ever been persecuted for the colour of their skin. All I can say I was deeply moved by it. Before reading Kindred, I was aware of the slavery in historical terms; a humanitarian travesty on a grand scale. I had very little exposure to the consequences of slavery on a human scale. The effect on individuals and on families. As Walton says in her review By wrenching a sheltered modern character like Dana back to the time of slavery you get to see it all fresh, as if it’s happening to you.’ It’s a hard book to read without flinching. 

Published in 1979 there is very little context to any prejudice Dana found in her own time. As Walton says, Dana’s 1979 seems idealised. I imagine in reality a mixed race couple would not escape being plagued by the narrow-minded. 35 years on this lack of context feels like a missed opportunity to document attitudes across two time-frames. Of course at the time of writing that is not what Butler was aiming to do.

Kindred is an excellent book. Apart from the time-travel device it’s not really science fiction. It’s evocative and compelling historical fiction. Books this good should never disappear and I am glad Headline decided to reprint it.

This book was sent to me by the publisher through their Bookbridgr programme. 



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