Kindred by Octavia E.Butler

I have been wanting to read Octavia E. Butler for some time, she was one of the most well-known African-American science fiction writers, with a reputation akin to the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou who sadly passed away at the age of 58 in 2006.

I guess it was the science-fiction label that stopped me reading her until now, having read Kindred her best-known work, I understand why Butler refers to this particular novel not as science fiction, but fantasy. She uses that element of fantasy to transport a character back to that historical period.

The novel begins with a shocking revelation, that immediately puts the reader on guard. After reading the first line, I was ready for something brutal to occur. It did, but not what I expected.

I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

It is 1976 and Dana is remembering everything that happened leading up to that moment. She is a Black woman writer married to a white man, a writer named Kevin. On her 26th birthday, something strange happens, she feels dizzy and nauseated, the room blurs and darkens around her, symptoms she will come to recognise with horror, signalling she is about to be transported back in time.

I was at the edge of a woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming …

Drowning!

The child is Rufus, it is 1815 in Maryland and Dana has time-travelled (without explanation) to an era where her liberties are severely constrained, to save the life of an ancestor. She must try and survive while she is there and figure out how to return to her own life. Until the next time his life is danger and she is called back again.

It’s a riveting account, putting a modern woman into an era where her attitude, education and way of being in the world are a danger to herself. It reminded me of Andrea Levy’s story of slavery in the Jamaican plantations Long Song both writer’s had a similar objective, to get inside the world of their ancestors, to imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings.

Levy looks at slavery through the eyes of a slave and does so with both humour and distaste. Butler transports a modern women, someone like her in fact, back in time, and makes us feel what life was like in 1815, showing us how someone from our own time might cope if sent back there, knowing what we know now. It’s an interesting predicament.

The longer Dana stays, the more she begins to feel part of the household, familiar and accepting.

That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places  in the householder of a slaveholder.

Rufus is the son of the plantation owner, the person Dana is connected to, as he ages and becomes more like his father, she struggles to rationalise her feelings towards him.

I looked at him again and let myself understand. It was that destructive single-minded love of his. He loved me. Not the way he loved Alice, thank God. He didn’t seem to want to sleep with me. But he wanted me around – someone to talk to, someone who would listen to him and care what he said, care about him.

And I did. However little sense it made, I cared. I must have. I kept forgiving him for things…

It’s a thought-provoking novel that uses that element of fantasy to place a woman of the 1970’s into the 1800’s to look at that life and legacy from the inside out. We can imagine how that would have stretched the imagination of the author and the challenges that created for her, grappling with what she discovered there, with what she was becoming aware of.

Highly recommended.

15 thoughts on “Kindred by Octavia E.Butler

  1. As soon as you wrote the word ‘fantasy’, I was on my guard. I don’t do Fantasy. But you’ve convinced me. This looks a very worthwhile read. Now then, when will the libraries re-open? I’m using this peculiar time to get through the unread books on my shelves, so it might have to wait a while….

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    • Personally I think this is historical fiction, except that the author places a person of her own era (in the 70’s) back in that period of American black slavery, and to do that requires one magical element, which we just accept.
      The story isn’t about her ability to do that, it looks at how our current perceptions are capable of being swayed and tested when placed within the circumstances of another era. How even the strongest bend and how dangerous it was for those who did break free and lead others toward a different life.

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  2. I’ve never read Butler, though my Eldest Child is a huge fan, and is immersing himself in her books during self-isolation. Her books seem hard to find (speaking as someone who’s had to search out her works as gifts for him…) Bearing in mind how highly regarded Kindred is, I find that surprising.

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  3. I’m very interested to see you compare this to The Long Song, which I hugely enjoyed when I read it many years ago. Normally I don’t go for things labelled ‘fantasy’ or ‘sci-fi’, but I think this novel is perfectly indicative of why labels can often do books a disservice. Having read your review, I’ll definitely give Butler a try.

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  4. Thank you Claire 💓 will add it to my “want to read list” no buying books for a while 😟 😌
    I must say I have many very good literary novels/memoirs in the form of arc’s and bought when times were a bit easier.
    Have you read Gloria Naylor ? I have The Women of Brewster Place, this I bought last year.
    I downloaded 4 free Archipelago novels, Our Lady of the Nile seems like a good novel if the first 2 pages are an example.
    And How To Be Brave, by Louise Beech 🌺
    Take good care ma chére amie 🌺🌷☕

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    • I haven’t read Gloria Naylor, but I’m sure she’s on my list, not yet my shelf though.
      I got one ebook from Archipalego after having a good look at their list. I went for A Dream in Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu which sounds fascinating.
      Glad to hear you have How to be Brave, a wonderful novel. 🌺🌷☕

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  5. I’m really glad you enjoyed this as a friend is toying with the idea of picking it for our book group when her turn comes around again (we have a rotating pick across the seven of us). Like others here, I tend to be a bit wary of fantasy, but I can think of some instances where it works really well. Have you read Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner? That’s terrific example of where elements of fantasy can turn a novel into something magical when used in the ‘right’ way.

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    • When I think of fantasy, I think of something magical, a world that isn’t like our own, but I think here, it’s not a fantasy world at all, it’s a woman from today (except that it was written in the 70’s) experiencing life back in the 1800’s and everyone else there is from that era.

      I think that this kind of use of an element to explore an aspect of humanity, by putting someone with the values and ethics of the late 1900’s into the previous century is an interesting philosophical and psychological exercise, I don’t think she wrote it to create an imaginary universe, I think she used that element to put someone like herself back in that time and see how it felt. She doesn’t turn her protagonist into a heroine, she excavates her own depths in a sense.

      I haven’t heard of Lolly Willowes, but it sounds like an interesting read, especially as readers don’t know what’s coming until later in the book in terms of those fantastical elements, that was a little like what happened in later stages of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree.

      I hope you get to read Kindred at bookclub, it would be interesting to discuss it in a group.

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  6. Like the other comments, I’m wary of fantasy and SF, but your review has completely convinced me to give this a try. It sounds interesting, and I really liked The Long Song so that’s a really appealing comparison 🙂

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