Thursday, October 25, 2012
Book Review: Kindred
I like books, she doesn't.
Kidding! For real though, we're both avid readers though rarely do our tastes coincide. On occasion though we'll recommend something to each other, and I'm happy to say, she hasn't led me astray yet...and I have her reading GRRM, so it is a win-win.
Anyway, she's a fan of Junot Diaz, an author I need to read sooner than later, and she recently went to a Junot Diaz author event here in Seattle. Apparently, during that event Diaz was talking about some of his influences and he mentioned Octavia E. Butler as an big influence. He even stated that she had written five perfect books.
When my lady came home from this author event, she asked me if I had read any of Butler's books, and when I answered "no", she filled me in on the story I just relayed to you, which peaked my interest enough so that when I was out and about on my next bookstore cruise, I made sure to pick up a couple of her books.
Lord knows I'm a sucker for time travel, so I started with Kindred.
Kindred is a novel about Dana, a 20th century black woman who, at the start of the book, is quietly celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday in her new home with her white husband, Keith. (I mention both Dana's and Keith's race here, because it plays a role in the overall narrative of Kindred.) With little more than a strong sense of dizziness as a warning, Dana is suddenly transported from her home in modern times, back to the antebellum South. When she arrives, she discovers herself by a riverside where a small boy is drowning. Acting purely on instinct, Dana saves the child, who turns out to be the son of a slave-owning plantation owner. Against all odds, and bounds of reality, it appears that the child, Rufus, has the ability to draw Dana to him across the gap of time and space to save him.
Though Dana returns shortly after the rescue, she soon finds herself drawn back to Rufus again, and again as he ages. Each time Dana must do something to save him from certain death. This second time, through physical contact during the transfer, Keith is able come along. This time though, rather than a stay of mere minutes, their stay spans weeks and months. Dana soon learns that saving Rufus might just be a key to her future existence, as she discovers he is likely one of her ancestors.
However, as a black woman in the antebellum South, each of Dana's transfers is fraught with peril, and her second transfer ends with her transferring back to modern times, and Keith getting left behind. When Dana returns again, years have passed, and Keith is nowhere to be found. All the while, Dana must strive to get by in a society where she has no rights, and is treated as less than human.
If you couldn't tell from the plot summary, Kindred is one incredibly engrossing novel. Even though it has a fantasy concept at it's center, it is a novel that is firmly based in the unflinchingly portrayed reality of the antebellum South. I'll be completely honest, I found many parts of this novel absolutely terrifying. The thing is, all those terrifying moments were things that were a part of every day reality for so many black people during those times. When that is juxtaposed with modern racial tensions and equal rights movements, it is striking to see how glacially slow progress has come about.
Butler did an amazing job of bringing the world of the antebellum South to life in Kindred. And she did this all while maintaining an objective stance. Characters from both sides of the racial divide were given equal amounts of development and the result is that each and every character was incredibly fleshed out and realistic. Butler has an amazing knack of making the reader see the characters as individuals rather than literary, or sociological stereotypes. Don't expect to be fed common caricatures of the times where the white plantation folks are portrayed as one dimensional racist fucks and the black slaves to be portrayed as powerless victims of brutal treatment, inhumane and unjust laws. Instead, Butler gives the reader an incredibly honest and unflinching look at the times and the people who lived during those years. Butler created a novel where the reader will feel like they are right there, watching everything unfold, but are just barely too far away from the events to lend a hand to help.
In addition to presenting a story filled with incredible, heart wrenching drama, incredibly realistic characters, and a gripping plot, I was also impressed with Butler's skill at writing a story that deals with such sensitive subject matter. The fact is that race is still a very difficult subject to talk about, yet Butler seemingly created a novel that does just that, opens up a space for discussion, with relative ease. Simply put, Kindred is a very accessible novel. Butler uses language that is simple enough to understand, and thus incredibly accessible to readers of varying ages, and Kindred is a book that could be read, understood, and enjoyed by probably any reader over the age of 12. That being said, readers of different ages are going to get different things out of this novel, and achieve varying levels of understanding and self-reflection. Because of that, I have a good feeling that it is an incredibly re-readable novel, as it is a book that can have different meanings and value at varying stages of a person's life.
There's a lot to be impressed with in Kindred, as a reader I was incredibly impressed by this tense, and emotional novel. As a human, I found many parts of the book that inspired personal reflection and growth, and as a book critic, I found a new (to me) writer whose literary craftsmanship is impressive and whose voice is one that has largely been missing from my reading habits.