A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Dana is a twenty-six year old black woman living in California in 1976. She is married to Kevin, who is white, and who rejected his racist family to marry Dana. They are both writers who met and fell in love while temping in menial jobs to pay the bills when writing wouldn’t. Then something very strange happens one day, as they unpack boxes in their new home: Dana feels dizzy and faints, but when she comes to she finds herself in antebellum Maryland. Nearby, a small red-haired boy is drowning and without thinking, Dana wades into the river to save him. The boy’s mother sees this black woman resuscitating her son and starts attacking Dana, before the boy’s father turns up and points a gun at her. Dana gets dizzy again and reappears in her house in 1976.
This is just the first of these time-travelling episodes. Time does not pass in the same way in the two timelines; years in the pre-Civil War days pass in just a few hours in 1976. And she does spend years there, for it transpires that that small red-haired boy is Rufus, a distant ancestor of Dana’s, who somehow manages to call her to him whenever his life is in danger. She ends up a slave in his household, while Kevin (who has clung onto her and time-travelled with her) enjoys the privileges that being a white man in the antebellum South brings. He pretends that he is her owner, drastically shifting the dynamics of their marriage. He may be liberal but he still struggles to understand the many ways that racism works.
‘Time-travelling slave narrative’ is a difficult genre to pin down, and it is testament to Butler’s light touch that the time travel element doesn’t take away from the impact of the slave narrative. It is a violent, bloody book that doesn’t flinch from exposing the modern reader (and indeed, the modern protagonist) to the utter desperation and horror experienced by those trapped by it. Both Dana and Kevin are permanently scarred by their time in the past. Kevin has a scar across his forehead (and presumably also a metaphorical scar through his brain as the realities of America’s history is seared into him, a white man who has never had to confront those horrors nor anything like them) but Dana is the most severely scarred. She is left with an arm amputated, meaning the past has the most severe impact on the rest of her life (and, we must assume, the most crippling emotional impact too).
Kindred is an extraordinary novel, one that it is impossible to forget. I read the whole thing is one sitting, horrified but gripped throughout. What would happen if we were transported back to our distant pasts? No doubt we would be confronted by toil and difficulties, but those of us born white, in the UK, would probably never face anything even approximating the bloody horror of slavery. I know I wouldn’t. My ancestors were Scottish and Irish farmers for centuries. Their jobs will have been tough, tougher than anything I’ve had to do in my life, but at least they were not enslaved. We are privileged. We must never forget that.
Octavia E. Butler: Kindred. Kindle edition. 2014 (originally published 1979). Hodder. RRP £5.99.