Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review - Kindred

by Octavia E. Butler
Date: 1979
Publisher: Beacon Press
Reading level: A
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 287
Format: e-book

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I felt like I needed something different, so I decided to try this book, which has been sitting in my TBR pile for a while now.  I'm not quite sure how to review it; this is one of those weird books that's really enjoyable, even though I shouldn't have liked it as much as I did because it has a number of problems.

Please, dear author, I want some more...

I was reminded of two stories as I was reading this book: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.  All three feature married adults who travel through time and have a spouse waiting for them "back home".  My edition had a date of 2004, so I assumed Butler had drawn her inspiration from the other two.  Actually, though, Kindred was first published in 1979... which makes it the forerunner by quite a wide margin!

While this is considered an "adult" title, I might actually recommend it for older teens.  It has less of the crass language that's peppered throughout The Time Traveler's Wife and the few sex scenes are implied more than spelled out (making it a lot tamer than Outlander).  The only thing that some people might find offensive is the use of the n-word... but it's contextually appropriate; the book would have been weird without it.

I'm kind of a sucker for time-travel stories when they're done well.  Kindred sucked me in from the first two-sentence paragraph of the prologue, and that's no exaggeration.  I dare anyone to read those lines and not be curious about the rest of the story.  And it was quite an interesting story, with a fast pace and complex characters.  Even though there's little explanation for the why of Dana's time travel (unlike in the other two books, where we know it's caused by a genetic condition or the standing stones, respectively), it's fairly easy to suspend disbelief.  She gets sucked back in time when Rufus needs her; we don't know why, but we don't really need to for the story to work.

The characters are interesting.  Dana, the main character, is a "modern" black woman from 1976.  She's married to a white man named Kevin, much to the chagrin of both their racist families.  Both are writers, which is kind of cool.  The action starts pretty quickly (which I liked) with Dana being sucked into the past to save a little red-haired boy named Rufus from drowning in a river.  She pops back in time periodically as he grows up, always when his life is in danger.  He's the son of a slave owner, which brings with it all sorts of racial issues when his saviour is a black woman who dresses like a man and speaks like an educated white person.  But Dana has a really good reason for needing to make sure Rufus stays alive (which I won't spoil for you), so she has to overlook a lot of really nasty behaviour on his part.  He's truly a product of his time, and I had sort of a love-pity-hate relationship with him.  He's hard to figure out and his actions are difficult to predict, so any time he's on the page, there are sure to be complications.

The pace in this story is quite good.  The author manages to weave in backstory about how Dana and Kevin met, and though it's annoyingly placed just after a bit of a cliff-hanger moment, its inclusion doesn't make you feel as though the author is just throwing stuff in to unnecessarily pad the story.  Actually, I wish there had been a little more backstory and more explanation during certain parts of the book (the lack of these things leads to a problem that I'll explain in a moment).  And the last few pages... whew!

It's all a matter of taste...

One thing that the author repeatedly does throughout the novel is throw in some telling about a previous time.  The only problem is, we were there... and that would have been the opportunity to show us these things.  It has the effect of making it seem like there's too much telling and not enough showing, and it actually made me feel a little distanced from the story and characters when that happened.  I felt like I'd missed something.

This overuse of telling is also an issue with the voices of the characters, especially early in the book. Dana is distrusted by the slaves because she supposedly sounds like the white folks.  I couldn't figure out what that meant for a while.  Accent?  Vocabulary?  Because, at that point, all the people seemed to talk pretty similarly.  Only later, when some of the characters' speech starts to be written out a little differently and Dana is told she sounds "educated" did I finally get it.  I don't know why this issue isn't clarified earlier in the book; it makes the characterization seem a little inconsistent.

Let's get technical...

Okay, maybe it's some weird 1970s thing, but the punctuation is bizarre.  Half the time it's correct, and half the time it isn't.  There are missing commas, some of which completely change the meaning of the sentence with their absence.  And then there are the question marks.  Or lack thereof.  It was as if the author was trying to depict the tone of voice with her punctuation.  So if someone asked a question flatly, there would be a period.  If they shouted the question, there would be an exclamation point.  (There were an awful lot of exclamation points, anyway.  I was reminded of that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine edited a book to include a ton of exclamation points: "It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!")

The verdict...

Overall, this is a fairly strong story.  It's more of a contemporary/historical fiction hybrid than anything else.  Actually, it probably reads more like historical fiction now (their TV doesn't even have a remote)!  Regardless, it's an engaging story with interesting characters, and I would recommend it with only a few reservations.

Quotable moment:

There was a long silence. He pulled me closer to him. "Do I really look like that patroller?"


"Do I look like someone you can come home to from where you may be going?"

"I need you here to come home to. I've already learned that."

He gave me a long thoughtful look. "Just keep coming home," he said finally. "I need you here too."

Premise: 4/5
Plot: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5 ladybugs

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