This is straight up going to be one of those reviews where I don’t do the book justice, in this case it’s mostly because I feel kind of overwhelmed by what I just read. I wish I had time to sit down and re-read it, pen in hand, and then attend a series of lecture classes with likeminded people where we totally dissect it and wallow around in its lovely nuance.
Maybe I just miss grad school. (The people and the atmosphere and the stimulating discussion, not the being poor or the research papers, to be clear. Don’t miss those.)
Not that I want you to think this is one of those books you HAVE to do that for, one of those ones that are so dense the author must have meant them as a litmus test for your intelligence. You can read this book with your brain on autopilot and still enjoy it, if you want to.
On the surface, Kindred is a time-travel story about a young black woman (and sometimes her new, white husband, Kevin as well) being pulled back and forth in time between her home in 1976 America and the home of her antebellum ancestors in 1815. What’s great about this, and what makes it simultaneously such an exciting and nuanced read, is that those ancestors are not all from the slavery side of the equation. In fact, the person Dana is most tied to is young white boy named Rufus, her great-great-great and some more greats after that grandfather. This isn’t a novel about how white people were evil and black people were oppressed. This is a novel about how social systems like slavery (and social systems that support disparate power dynamics) influence and shape the human animal. That how we behave to others is a direct consequence of how we’re brought up to see the world. What makes it work is that all of that isn’t even the primary concern. Dana and her husband and Rufus (and to a lesser extent, the slave Alice) are the primary concerns. This is their story. But it’s mostly Dana’s, as the contrast between her modern life and the life she has to learn to live in the past threatens to destroy her in a more insidious way than she had been expecting. It’s more than just her life at stake.
I’m not even going to try and parse out all the details and moments that made this book such a rich read for me. It will just overwhelm me. I have a feeling I could write several hundred pages of detailed thoughts and impressions and feelings about this novel if you really let me go, so rather than trying to express them inadequately here, I will stop before I start and simply say, you should read this book. It is perfectly constructed and deceptively simple. It will play on your emotions, and it will make you think. It’s not a thriller, but it will punch you in the face if you want it to.
It will do all of this because Octavia Butler was a really great writer who knew how to tell a story in such a way that it was about something without boxing itself in. It’s about one thing and many things all at once. It’s an intimate character study at the same time as being a novel about humanity.
It’s pretty great is what I’m saying, and I will now be checking out everything Octavia Butler has ever written.