I had no idea what Kindred is about prior to reading it, I previously read Octavia Butler's [b:Wild Seed|52318|Wild Seed (Patternmaster, #1)|Octavia E. Butler|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388462753s/52318.jpg|1330000] and thought it was marvelous, and Kindred seems to be her most popular work judging by Goodreads ratings. So buying a copy of Kindred without knowing anything about it was a no-brainer. I even deliberately avoided looking at the book's synopsis before hand, I just wanted to get to know the book as I read on. I hoped for a pleasant surprise, which I did get. This is only the second Octavia Butler book I have read and I already worship her.
Kindred is about Dana, an African American woman who finds herself time travelling involuntarily to Maryland in the early nineteenth century. It is not explained how or why this happen to her, the mechanic of it is entirely irrelevant to the story. The novel is about her experience of slavery in the past. Her fate becomes intertwined with Rufus, a white ancestor who is the only son of a plantation owner and who somehow triggers her time traveling trips every time he is in mortal danger, a situation that arises more frequently to him than to most people. While there she experiences the woes of slavery first hand, including whipping, beating, degradation and humiliation.
This is a harrowing and emotional read, I almost cry manly tears during some of the chapters. I never pondered what it may have been like to be a slave, it is not exactly a contingency which is at all likely to ever arise. However, Ms Butler - genius that she was - made me feel
it through the eyes of her protagonist. The pains and humiliation of slavery resonates with me even though there ought to be nothing to resonate. I kind of winced every time a stroke of a whip is described. This is not a comfortable read but highly engrossing and thought provoking. The book is very much character-centric, the relationship between Dana and Rufus is very complex and fascinating. Dana's husband Kevin who also become embroiled in time traveling and is marooned in the nineteenth century for years without his wife adds to her complications, his reaction to returning to the present time (1976) is entirely believable and again resonates strongly.
The book reminds me a little of Connie Willis's excellent [b:Doomsday Book|24983|Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)|Connie Willis|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1403972500s/24983.jpg|2439628], which is about time travelling to the fourteenth century and also a harrowing (yet wonderful) read, though the emphasis of that book is on poverty, hardship and diseases rather than slavery. The involuntary time traveling aspect of the book reminds me of Audrey Niffenegger's [b:The Time Traveler's Wife|14050|The Time Traveler's Wife|Audrey Niffenegger|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1274656075s/14050.jpg|2153746], though Kindred predates it, and Kindred is certainly not a romantic book.
Octavia Butler was not one of those literary writers who try to avoid the science fiction label like the plague even while using sf tropes in their works, she has always loved sf and gladly embraced the genre (see photo below).
That said, Kindred is also not science fiction. The author described it as a "grim fantasy" and deliberately did not put any science in it, it is described by some literary critics as a "neo-slave narrative". I did consider why the book was written as a fantasy (or almost sf) instead of historical fiction, then I realised that it was probably done so the modern reader can experience the nineteenth century Maryland through the protagonist's contemporary eyes, this makes the book very visceral.
While the book was written to make the reader ponder some serious issues such as man's inhumanity to man, inequality and courage in an environment where you are made to feel worthless, at no point did I feel like being lectured to. The author knows the importance of communicating through the story, and I was completely swept away by it. Whatever I read next will likely suffer from being compared to this book. This goes in my all-time greats list.
From Tor.com: Octavia Butler Will Change the Way You Look at Genre Fiction