On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.
She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old-looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life…until it happens again.
The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland – a very dangerous place for a black woman – the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.
Length: 306 pages
Published: 2020 (originally 1979)
I read Kindred for a university assignment to evaluate a book that included time travel. I chose Kindred because I’d heard really good things about Octavia Butler and I wanted to give her a try.
I have to say that, unfortunately, I was disappointed by this book. The story opens quite quickly, throwing us immediately into the action. Dana is taken back in time to save a child drowning in a river, though she doesn’t know this at the time. She returns home terrified for her life, and it isn’t long before her and her partner put the pieces together and they work out what’s happening.
The setup for the story itself is interesting. The idea of a modern black woman being transported back to the era of slavery gives an interesting perspective on both the past and the present, but the story falls down in its execution. For me, the big thing that let the book down was the lack of any sort of explanation for the time travel, including why it was happening to Dana at that moment.
I don’t think a scientific explanation is required – time travel doesn’t have to be explained in detail. But it would have been nice to have the phenomenon given some boundaries and acknowledged? Rather, the characters accept it without any sort of questioning or much shock. It’s accepted as a matter of course, which irritated me.
There really isn’t a lot of character development, or characterisation at all either. There isn’t a lot of depth to Dana, her partner, or the boy she’s trying to save in the past. They accept their circumstances and the past very easily. It does feel like the characters are merely vehicles to tell a story, and the story exists merely to illustrate a point.
Kindred was published at a time when black women struggled to get any recognition in the publishing industry, and certainly not in science fiction. For that reason the book is very important. It’s a shame it’s got a lot of problems, but it’s still a seminal work that deserves the recognition it gets. I do plan on trying more Octavia Butler books in the future, in the hope that she becomes a better writer as she progresses (as many writers do).
I think it’s worth a read for its historical significance, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking from a story point of view.