Kindred by Octavia Butler – A powerful historical/sci-fi; absolutely exceptional in every way

kindred

Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

Kindred is a truly outstanding book. Not only is it the first science-fiction written by a black author – making it an incredible piece of black American literature – but it is an amazing book by its own merits. And there are many.

What is immediately apparent when starting Kindred is that it is incredibly addictive. The storytelling is compelling, action-packed, and also has its poignant and introspective moments. I’m often a slow reader when it comes to reading physical copies of books (an average sized book takes me a week?), but I finished Kindred in three days (which, I want to emphasize, is fast for me). Starting with its prologue, which induced a sense of horror, morbid curiosity, and foreboding for what might come, all the way through to its ending, Kindred had me hooked; the kind of book that immerses you so deeply that time passes in a blur. Butler’s prose was wonderful; accessible but effortlessly evoked a spectrum of emotions from sympathy and sadness to anger and fear through its complicated ethical questions.

Time travel was science fiction in nineteen seventy-six. In eighteen nineteen – Rufus was right – it was sheer insanity.

Kindred is a historical fiction, neo-slave narrative, and time-travel science-fiction thus providing an avenue for difficult yet frank explorations of America’s shameful history. As Dana, the protagonist, is propelled to and forth the present (1976 California) and the past (19th century Maryland, the antebellum South), her journey through the latter unveils some terrible and ugly moments, and it never softens the brutality, sense of entitlement, manipulation, and the violence perpetuated by white slaveowners.

The story explores a multitude of themes, all which were explored with nuance, depth, and, given its subject matter, deeply resonating and provocative. Most compelling were how Dana’s appearance in the latter raised questions of identity, specifically how identities are shaped and dictated by history, ancestry, and societal norm of a time. One of the things that Kindred illustrates is how people, even of a different time and different place, can become so acclimatized to such horrifying and violent conditions. What power is at work when we accept things we shouldn’t accept? Who are we when we allow such things to happen, even if it is ‘normal’?

Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas.

One of Butler’s triumphs with Kindred is her incredible characters. From courageous and steadfast Dana to her husband Kevin, from Nigel and Alice, both so strong, to the cruel Tom Weylin and the unpredictable and abusive Rufus, all characters were complex, possessing a humanness even when the characters did terrible and unforgivable things or failed to recognize or acknowledge the humanity in others. With her outstanding writing, Butler compares and contrasts different perspectives and ideas through the lens of someone pulled from the present and thrust into America’s shameful past. Black and white folk are humanized without romanticizing or diverging from the truth of history, without deviating from the pain and hopeless of the black characters felt real, raw, and heart-wrenching, without forgetting the cruelty and demonic things that white folk did.

I had heard the most extraordinary praise for Kindred, and regret putting off reading it for so long. But now that I have read Kindred, don’t make the same mistake I did. Read Kindred; read this book. It is all at once powerful, enthralling, somber, emotional with a complex ideas, and such an amazing read. Truly one of a kind and exceptional in every way, Butler’s work is a tour de force.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: Kindred
Author: Octavia E Butler
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Format: Paperback

Kindred in:
Goodreads | Book Depository | My review on Goodreads


(Book content and trigger warnings: violence, sexual violence, self-harm, racism, abuse, slavery, torture)

I read Kindred for Black History Month, and I think I made a good choice. If you haven’t read Kindred, well, what are you waiting for?! It’s a classic, definitely lives up to its praises, and is just. It’s just such a good book. *happy sigh*

  • Have you read Kindred? Did you like it? What are your thoughts?
  • Have you read any of Butler’s other works? Do you have any recommendations?
  • What are you reading for Black History Month?
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11 thoughts on “Kindred by Octavia Butler – A powerful historical/sci-fi; absolutely exceptional in every way

  1. This is such a well-written and detailed review; nice one! Okay I’m DEFINITELY going to pick it up now. There was a copy of it with a really pretty cover we saw the day Glaiza and I went 2nd hand bookstore hopping XD Hopefully it’s still there the next time I go!

    • And a bit random but this reminds me SLIGHTLY of the anime series Erased – not sure if I’ve mentioned it before? A young man automatically jumps back in time whenever someone around him needs saving – usually it’s just five minutes or so – but one day he finds his mother murdered, and he jumps back to when he was 10 years old. Then he realises there’s a connection between this murder and the three kids who disappeared when he was 10 – so he has to figure out a way to save all of them. Definitely recommended! (And it’s only 12 eps in total)

  2. This is such an incredible review for an incredible book <3. After I read Kindred, I walked into my sister's room to vent about how cruel Rufus was!

    I admire that Butler took the time travel trope around meeting one's ancestors and flipped expectations to confront the social reality of history. Also, agreed on how nuanced her take on Dana and Kevin's relationship was too. Especially in showing the visceral impact of social norms on individuals across time.

    I'm so glad this one was recently republished too. Butler's Earthseed/Parable books are getting reprinted & I hope they come to int'l bookstores later this year too! https://twitter.com/Glaiza_echo/status/832375810057080833

    I recently reviewed a non-fiction book about Octavia Butler's writing process + work but need to bump up Conversation with Octavia Butler up the TBR for more in depth interviews.

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