Kindred | Octavia Butler

‘Kindred’ is a slavery narrative with a difference. It’s told by a young twentieth century Black woman, Dana, who is repeatedly whisked back in time, against her will, to antebellum Maryland. In her present life she lives in California, with her white husband and the beginnings of a career as an author. In Maryland she is the property of a plantation owner. Her reason for being there is to ensure her future, by keeping the self-destructive young master Rufus alive long enough to father her ancestor. It’s a enticing premise, if you suspend your disbelief about the logistics; it presents the reality of slavery from the viewpoint of someone who knows the historical facts, but then gets to experience it for herself. And it’s brutal. Really viscerally brutal.    

There are two frames to the story. In the prologue we find Dana waking in hospital to find her left arm has been amputated, with no idea why – a hot start (although we never find out the reason.) This preludes her life before: family stuff, work stuff, relationship stuff and settling into newly-wed domesticity – which then frames her travels back in time. The time travel device would, you imagine, serve as a way to look at then and now, compare and contrast – except no. The present gives a bit of respite from the harsh slavery-era narrative, but nothing much happens apart from recovery from the physical and psychological damage that each visit to the past entails. Dana’s first encounter with Rufus is rescuing him from drowning as a child, and this motif feels like it’s replicated throughout the book – briefly coming up for air in the twentieth century, only to be forced down again into the past until she can take it no longer.      

‘Kindred’ is a brutal depiction of the lives of enslaved women in the American south, and as such is appalling effective. Not only worked to an early grave but treated as livestock to produce babies, their husbands and children sold at a whim, while subject to the same punishment regime of beatings, whippings, mutilations as men, but with added rape. In this regard, it’s a raw and necessary read. An ordinary plantation under an ordinary owner. A comfortable existence for the status-obsessed white family; a living hell for their Black workers.  

I had really mixed feelings about this book however. There is drama and tension, but it was also often plodding and over-written, and hampered by its structure. There is visceral horror but it didn’t really touch me, as the the lack of character development makes for little empathy. The nineteenth century cast seem remarkably accepting of Dana’s 1970’s attire, speech, education and the fact of her coming from the future. Her husband is also remarkably accepting of the whole thing, despite being dragged back to the past too and into a awkward new ownership of his wife. The literacy theme was powerful but over-done. The story didn’t hold together, in terms of in internal emotional/psychological coherence or time-travel logistics. Dana is compelled to keep Rufus alive so that he can rape the enslaved woman who becomes her great-great-grandmother, which she enables. None of this makes sense, ethically or narratively. An incredibly powerful read in parts, but patchy as a novel.