Kindred Book Review
Read from 03/08/10 - 03/10/20
Octavia Butler's Kindred broke me.
There were moments reading this book where I felt genuine dread, parts where my heart ached for the characters. The novel's ending is both upsetting and thought-provoking. After I finished the book, I found myself staying up through wee hours of the morning. Every every time I closed my eyes, I'd be forced to wrestle with what I had just finished.
While Kindred broke me, it didn't shatter me in anger and frustration: Butler skillfully weaved a haunting tale that disquieted me. It wasn't shocking for shock's sake and the characters helped guide me through the grim plot.
Octavia E. Butler has been on my radar for a while now. Unfortunately, however, she's been an author that I've heard about but I haven't ever been able to read, either due to being busy with other books or being busy with Life™. However, now that I've finally gotten a chance to read one of her works, I'm pleased to tell you to believe the hype. If all of her books are of this caliber, then she's as great of a writer as you've been told.
Kindred follows Edana "Dana" Franklin, a Black writer living in Los Angeles in 1976. Dana, with her white husband, Kevin, leads a relatively quiet life. Her calm life and sense of security are horribly upended when she suddenly, inexplicably finds herself transported some 2,000 miles west and 161 years in the past to Antebellum Maryland. There, she meets Rufus Weylin, the young son of a slave owner. Dana realizes that she's summoned to the past when Rufus is in danger. Seeing as Rufus is her ancestor, for the sake of her own existence, she's compelled to save him regardless of the man he may-or-may-not grow up to be. As Dana continues to travel to the hellish Antebellum past, her modern sensibilities are increasingly transgressed as she does everything she can to survive slavery.
My first bit of praise is on technique. Butler begins Kindred with a prologue and, my God, what a prologue it is. At three pages, it doesn't have a chance to overstay its welcome and its length belies its impact. "I lost my arm on my last trip home," Dana, our narrator, begins. "My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone." It's extremely stark and striking, succinctly setting the grim tone for the story to come as well as setting up the mystery as to how Dana loses her arm, which is our first shot of Kindred's "just-one-more-page" doses. In addition, we're given a timeframe for Dana's journey to the past (whether that means the trip that cost her arm was a year or the trips were a year overall), giving the readers a foreboding frame of reference in regards to her journey. Kindred's prologue simultaneously gives readers something to look forward to and something to look back on — several times throughout the book, I compared Dana and Kevin's mental states and relationship with what was shown in the prologue. I've always been partial to prologues and this is an excellent example of one. This is how you write a prologue. It's separate from the first chapter, but not totally disconnected. It's mysterious, but not unapproachable and cryptic. It begs for you to read on and see how the dots connect. It might seem like a little thing, but Octavia Butler managed to inject the very first page with a lot of momentum, ensuring the story came out the gate swinging. For that, it's all the more of an engaging read.
I absolutely loved the way that time travel was handled here. It's not explained very well (see: not at all), so it might be disappointing for readers who love deep dives into science-fiction. That said, this lack of detail doesn't hurt the story in any way — after all, Butler herself considered this story a "grim fantasy" instead of science fiction, meaning this loosey-goosey flavor of time travel was very much intentional. What this time travel lacks in detail it more than makes up for in emotional poignance. Like with most great speculative fiction], Butler uses the fantastical to better understand the familiar. Simply put, time-travel is often depicted as whimsical and empowering, often used as a tool to save the present. Even when time travel is dangerous, this danger is often mitigated by a sort of whimsy (think Back to the Future). Even when this danger is more serious, there can still be a sense of adventure (think Michael Crichton's Timeline). Here, there's absolutely nothing fun about Dana's trips to the past. They're fraught with not just danger that's physical, but psychological as well; there's not just the threat of death of the body, but death of the soul, too. Here, no one ends the story deciding to stay in the past because it's made very apparent very quickly that there's no romanticizing this past, full of whips and chains that flay and bond your skin and your will. This speaks to a truth that's often not very acknowledged in time travel stories — when two people travel to the past, they may not travel to the same past. Time, location, and identity determine whether or not a blast to the past is a vacation or a hellscape. If given the chance to travel back in time, my immediate, logical response might be somewhere in the ballpark of "fuck that." Butler very compellingly showcases the disparities in time travel, in part by making the great choice of having Kevin and Dana both go to the past for a trip and tracking their differing attitudes. Dana time traveling and having to come face-to-face with the genesis of her family in America speaks to another disparity when it comes to Americans' view of ancestry. A group of friends might be able to go into great detail of when their family members came to America and how. If a Black person is amongst the friend group, awkwardness may descend wherein the only thing they know for sure is that their family probably came via slave ship and suffered for generations, with no glamour to speak of. Dana's journey through time wherein she's forced to face the nation's past as well as her own kin fantastically reaffirm the inequality of time travel.
But that's all essentially the premise, which can fall flat with a poor execution. Fortunately, Butler's execution is nigh-immaculate. Pacing is amazing: individual sections aren't terribly long, and they always end in a way that makes me yearn for more. This is a very, very engaging read that was extremely hard to put down. I didn't expect to finish this in three days, but it was just that engaging. That's pretty remarkable given the fact that this book was as great of a read as it was terrible to read.
Butler is committed to not only showing not only the physical pain, but the mental pain of being in bondage, the pain of "house slaves" being pitted against "field slaves," creating an "us vs. them" relationship. The slave characters aren't just an indistinct mass of suffering, but fleshed out individuals with histories. The characters carried the bulk of emotion for me. They just feel so real and it's hard not to connect with them. Thus, you'll inevitably feel absolutely torn up when something bad happens to them. Kevin isn't in the story for terribly long, but his importance to Dana is quite palpable, so I worried about their relationship throughout. Most ways you slice it, Rufus is a monster, but I still felt bad for him; it was heart-wrenching to see him transform from a relatively sweet kid to a brutal, willful beneficiary of slavery. I don't quite fathom Dana's fondness towards him, but she feels so real that I can at least believe it. Alice's chilling fate come the final chapter was so abrupt and horrible that it was a major part of what haunted me. Hell, Joe and Hagar are barely in the story and I still felt for them.
After connecting with these characters, the reason I felt so bad for them is, naturally, the dehumanizing situation they're put in. I commend Butler's depiction of slavery. In an interview, Butler stated that she chose to write a less violent version of slavery, in hopes that more people would read Kindred. While perhaps not her intention, her decision showcases the complexities of slavery, whose evils can manifest insidiously just as often as they can overtly. While the characters, namely Dana, might not be in constant, physical pain, they still suffer psychologically, robbed of choice and agency. Frighteningly, I've gotten in arguments with individuals who believe that "slavery isn't bad if they're treated nicely," and Kindred is a great way to absolutely smash this train of thought. It shows how slavery can still be damaging even under a less whip-happy master. "Nice" is relative and living under bondage isn't nice at all. Dana, all things considered, is treated relatively well compared to slaves, yet, reading this, you wouldn't at all want to be in her position.
All that said, this is still a brutal story. Sure, it has more insidious elements but it can be pretty overt in its horrors while still never becoming too graphic. To wit, there's psychological trauma, rape, self-harm including suicide, and physical punishment such as whipping, among other uncomfortable topics. This isn't a story for the weak of heart, and I don't mean that as an insult or a masochistic challenge — this is a highly triggering story that will test your mental fortitude. I don't think I upset easily and Kindred still messed me up.
Yet, again, it's a deeply effective novel because of how upsetting it is.
I can't think of many critiques I have for the novel, certainly nothing that would dock points. As I stated earlier, Kevin's differing perspective on being teleported to the Antebellum era was interesting, shocking, even. My jaw practically dropped when he talked about it being an interesting adventure instead of horrifying and it perfectly encapsulated an idea of people having different perspectives of the past. It tragically depicted someone who may profess to be an ally still making light of a struggle. I thought this would be interesting fodder for conflict but it was...sort of dropped? It's not really addressed again, at least not that I could pick up. When Kevin appears again, this perspective isn't acknowledged. Reading about it online, many understand it to mean that Kevin's extended time in the past changed his view for the better. I can definitely see this route(and may-or-may not prefer since Dana at least having some semblance of security via a happy marriage is probably what kept me from being a blubbering mess), but I would have preferred if this change was addressed more.
But overall, this is a very, very good novel. It's deeply haunting, but that's what makes it so good, what makes it important. It's a sight to behold how engaging this story is, how it beautifully infuses fantasy elements to better its slave narrative. This is a book I expect to think about for a long time. Perhaps not continuously, but I suspect it's the type of story that'll creep up on you, just as you think it's safe to close your eyes again.