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REVIEW: Kindred by Octavia E.Butler

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

I have absolutely no idea why it has taken me 21 years of living on this planet to read this book. I received Kindred as part of a diversity book chain on Instagram, organised by I am so glad that this book came into my hands and I can't wait to share it with others down the chain!

In 1976, Dana dreams of being a writer. She lives with her husband, Kevin, and life seems to be good. But one day, something strange happens, and she wakes up on a Maryland plantation. In 1815. Dana is also Black. When Dana first arrives in Maryland, she finds a boy drowning. She saves his life, then, somehow, returns home to 1976. From then on, Dana is summoned to Maryland whenever Rufus’ life is in danger, being thrown between 1976 and the 1800's. She has no idea how or why this is happening. This results in a dual-timeline narrative that explores race, gender, and family in both the past and present, where the two timelines begin to merge.

Despite the novel being both set and published in the late 1970s, it still feels incredibly modern and relevant. The merging of the past and the present shows the race relations that proceeded our contemporary society and reflects how deeply rooted racism is. Through starkly comparing the different timelines, 1976 becomes a place of refuge, a space where the reader, and Dana, can finally breathe. The novel doesn't go into too much detail about Dana’s 1976 life, with much more time being spent in the plantation timeline, but even 1976 isn't a perfect utopia for this Black woman. When she marries Kevin, a white man, they lose friends and family members because of their union, highlighting the racism that has filtered into her modern life, rooted in the past that she is taken to. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this. It takes a completely modern twist on slave narratives. A contemporary female voice is put at the centre. She is not teaching the reader anything, we are learning with her, not through her. Dana is like the reader in ways, she has to learn the landscape and the dynamics of the plantation, she cannot understand or comprehend everything, and she is an outsider. Both Dana and the reader grow to understand the landscape and how these people become trapped in the logic of racism and slavery, how it becomes ingrained and learned.

With every turn of the page, I was absolutely petrified. Danger seems imminent. From the very minute that Dana is in Maryland, even without meeting anyone yet, I was terrified for her life. Through using the first-person perspective, Butler directly places the reader in Dana's shoes - it is so powerful and effective. Butler basically asks: how would you feel if you were Black and transported to the past? The answer is: absolutely petrified. This is by no means a light read, with some parts being extremely distressing and hard to continue reading (trigger warning for anyone who struggles with brutality, violence, and sexual assault). But you have to continue reading; you cannot ignore or sugar-coat history. The novel is written simply and effectively and, apart from the hard scenes, is a quick read. I didn’t pick up on many stand-out beautiful passages (as expected with the content) but every sentence is precise to a movement, thought or feeling. Every word propels the plot forward; characters moving and speaking and thinking. This adds to the feeling of time within the novel, with its constant presence with each minute that she is on that plantation.

I found the dynamics in the novel extremely interesting, particularly between Dana and white men. Dana continues saving Rufus’ life despite him turning into more of a monster with each passing day. He becomes the plantation owner, creating a strange dynamic between him and Dana as a Black woman. Rufus has a certain level of respect for Dana (for the most part) and fears her headstrong nature and her sense of self-worth. They have a relationship almost like Stockholm Syndrome, even to a point where the reader cannot relate to why she cares about him. Another dynamic I found fascinating was her and her husband, Kevin. (*spoiler alert*) When Kevin manages to go with her to Maryland, his position as a white man places him ‘above’ her in the hierarchy, and they pretend that Dana is his slave, his belonging. This obviously makes sense to do for survival but this changes their whole relationship, exposing the inequalities that Kevin will never understand in their biracial relationship, even in their normal 1976 life.

I am so glad that I read this book and I will definitely be reading more of Octavia E. Butler’s work.

Here are a few lines that stood out to me:

  • “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (Pg 108)

  • “I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’ time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse.’ (Pg 211)

Thanks so much for reading and I’ll hopefully see you next time,

Kate x

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