Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredI thought this would be a pretty slam-dunk book for me. The internets love it, it’s got time travel (!), it’s got complex social issues, somebody loses an arm… I mean, these things are catnip to me. Maybe not the arm thing. A little bit the arm thing. Whatever.

And, I mean, I found this book interesting, and compelling, and fascinating, but I just can’t bring myself to say it was a good book.

The story, and this is definitely the best part, involves a black woman from 1970s California who finds herself randomly and inexplicably transported back to early-1800s Maryland, when and where slavery is alive and well and not terribly friendly to educated black women. At first she goes back for brief periods, to save the life of a young white man when he gets himself into various types of trouble, but her visits get longer and she finds herself actually living in the household of this white man, as not quite but essentially a slave. She soon realizes that this household, and this man, are part of her lineage, and she feels obligated to protect all of it to protect herself, but that’s incredibly difficult when she can’t actually, you know, protect herself. Throw in her white husband who hitches a ride with her during one of her trips back and ends up playacting as her master, and you’ve got yourself a crazy, twisty, complex story about race.

So that’s great, right? It is. It’s sobering and fascinating to see how easily the 1970s characters adapt to life in the 1800s, how easy it is to do something you know is absolutely wrong when you know that doing what is right will probably get you killed. It’s awful to watch a child grow into a slave owner, and to see slave families broken up. It’s frustrating to see parallels in the characters’ thoughts and actions with the thoughts and actions of seemingly reasonable human beings today. This is a super important book.

But. For as much as I appreciated the issues of the book, and the crazy plot that tied them together, I couldn’t ever really get into the characters outside of their assigned places in the story. I didn’t really care about Dana, our heroine, or everyone else whose names I’ve already forgotten; they were just pawns in the greater chess game of the book. This is possibly the fault of, or just in addition to, the fact that my reading brain has never really gotten into the writing style of books from the 1970s, which rely heavily on the telling and are generally quite unsubtle. This book had a little more subtlety going for it, but I never found the writing especially exciting.

And possibly that’s on purpose, of course, and perhaps the point is that, hey, this whole thing that’s being written about race relations is really important and pretty sentences and deep characters are going to take a backseat to that. But the heart wants what it wants, and it didn’t quite want the book it got here.

Recommendation: Even if it’s not up to my apparently exacting standards of “good”, it is a book that you should read and that you should make everyone you know read, too.

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