Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Book review: Kindred

Once again, I find myself the lonely curmudgeon. My book club's selection for this go-round, was Octavia E. Butler's "slave narrative" novel, Kindred. Everyone in our group not only enjoyed it, but sang its praises to the heavens. Except me. I didn't like it.

Octavia Butler is a celebrated author and something of a pioneer in that she is a black woman, writing in the science-fiction genre, which is largely dominated by white men. We're all familiar with Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, right?

I suppose Kindred could legitimately be considered science-fiction. It does, after all, involve time travel. But it is science-fiction only in the loosest sense.

Really this book has very little to do with science and more to do with sociology and evolving social mores. It centers around Dana, an African-American woman in Los Angeles in 1976, who is transported "magically" to early nineteenth century Maryland. Her experience is somehow tied to the experiences of Rufus, a white slaveholder with a propensity to put himself in life-threatening situations. Dana is transported between these two time periods several times over the course of the narrative. The novel examines the evolution of her perceptions and attitudes as she alternates between existence as an independent, self-determining black woman and a submissive, shackled slave with no rights.

An interesting premise, to be sure. The parallels between Dana's relationships in her two existences are intriguing, and the potential for social commentary is undeniable.

But, unfortunately, Butler doesn't deliver. Firstly, I was put off by the careless manner in which the time travel element was assumed. It didn't make sense and it wasn't explained satisfactorily. Over the course of the novel, all the characters --Dana, herself, her modern-day husband, Kevin, her "owner," Rufus, her fellow slaves --all seem to casually accept this impossible phenomenon. It didn't ring true.

But more than that, I found Butler's prose to be dull and colorless. The narrative was detached. There was very little imagery and almost no sense of immediacy. Butler seems to studiously avoid the whole "show, don't tell" writer's adage. Here's a sample:
"A couple of Kevin's friends came over on the Fourth of July and tried to get us to go to the Rose Bowl with them for the fireworks. Kevin wanted to go --more to get out of the house than for any other reason, I suspected. I told him to go ahead, but he wouldn't go without me. As it turned out, there was no chance for me to go, anyway. As Kevin's friends left the house, I began to feel dizzy.

I stumbled toward my bag, fell before I reached it, crawled toward it, grabbed it just as Kevin came in from saying good-bye to his friends.

'Dana,' he was saying, 'we can't stay cooped up in this house any longer waiting for something that isn't...'

He was gone."
Here we have an incident that is ripe with potential. But Butler's dull voice makes it fall dead. No drama, no life. Wouldn't it be more effective and entertaining for readers to infer Kevin's desire to see the fireworks through imagery and dialog? Wouldn't the scene be more engaging if we knew something about Kevin's friends? If we heard the actual exchange of words that occurred between them? Couldn't Butler have come up with a more vivid description of Dana's fit than "feel[ing] dizzy?"

There were times, reading this book, when every single sentence I read irritated me. They seemed more likely to have been written by an amateur, by an 8th grade literary arts pupil.

Well, considering that the novel is widely acclaimed, and that it has sold nearly 500,000 copies, there is something in this book that people seem to appreciate. But for me it just didn't work. Hats off to Ms. Butler for breaking new ground for African-American women writers, but I might have hoped that that particular demographic could have produced a more engaging writer.

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