April 3rd, 2009


April Books 1) Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Why is Kindred such a good book?

It has some noticeable problems. We never find out exactly how or why our narrator gets repeatedly yanked back in time from contemporary California to early 19th-century Maryland. She and her husband accommodate themselves to their peculiar situation remarkably quickly. The end of the book is abrupt and jars with what we have learnt about Dana over the previous 250 pages.

And yet, it is a really good book.

I've written before about Butler's take on gender and race, in her most famous short story. I've also written before about antebellum slavery, on a plantation owned by a family whose name, oddly enough, was Butler. In Kindred, Octavia Butler takes her narrator back to the early nineteenth century, but she also brings slavery forward to our own time, both the physical marks of it in the scars on Dana's back and her missing arm, and the changes it makes to her mental map of her past and present, and it's that jarring disconnect/connect which makes the book so memorable and thought-provoking.

Also, Butler's writing style is memorably sparse. She shows rather than tells; sometimes I wish she would even show a bit more of her characters' emotional reactions to what happens to them. But it's not always a bad thing to make the reader work a bit to grasp what is going on. And the brutal facts of slavery and of the human spirit's adaptation to it pretty much speak for themselves; at least, they do when Butler is describing them. Although the brutality of her fictional Maryland slaveholding is actually not as bad as the real Carolinas plantation described by Fanny Kemble a little later in time, it seems more shocking to have it witnessed by someone who is a contemporary of ours.

I read this book for the 50books_poc book club, and I'm glad I did.

Irish Times archive gems (mostly Who)