Welp. I read this in a day. That probably says more than the thousand words I’m going to write could possibly convey about how good I thought this book was (spoilers, I’m going to write those thousand words anyway). Because it was genuinely excellent. I’m not going to say “enjoyable” because, well… it’s not a subject matter for fun, happy times. But I am very glad I’ve read it, and it is without doubt a brilliant, excellent book. It got five stars on Goodreads and I didn’t even have to pause to think.
I mean, I had a strong suspicion I was going to like it – I really enjoyed Bloodchild after all – but it was just… I couldn’t put it down. It’s not exactly a hefty book, but nor is it particularly shorter than your average paperback. I started reading it on the train to brunch this morning (mmmm, brunch), picked it up again on the train back after and then, when I got home and could sit down and just read… I did… until I ran out of book. Not really because I wanted to know what happened next (though I did) and not really because I was having fun (I was and I wasn’t, if you see what I mean) but just because it was a book where the experience of reading it was so utterly compelling. We’ve all had those, I’m sure.
Weirdly, though, the thing I am most inclined to compare it to is one I didn’t enjoy anywhere near as much – The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. As well as the obvious time-travel comparison, they do share some things, just without Kindred being anywhere near as iffy as tTTW ever gets.
Well, that’s not true. It gets all manner of iffy. But deliberately.
The story follows Dana, a 26 year old black woman in 1976, who suddenly finds herself flung back in time to 19th century Maryland, saving the life of a young white boy, and her subsequent travels back there and home again, and what this means for her life on both sides of the timeline. More than anything else (and more than it’s a science-fiction novel), it’s about a modern(ish) woman seeing the realities of slavery and experiencing them first hand, while also watching her white husband interact with the same world, and see it differently. It’s not a novel for the happy-feels, because nothing about slavery is for the happy-feels, but it feels important and considered and that’s a satisfying thing to read. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re clearly meant to feel uncomfortable (and I certainly did), but it’s… I can’t think of the right positive adjective. Much like The Handmaid’s Tale‘s feeling of inevitability, the reality of it, knowing you very well might become one of the people in the novel and hating that… I find the character of the husband here worrying, because for all that he’s mostly decent, he sometimes slips into minimising the awfulness of life as a slave, simply because he doesn’t see most of it. He doesn’t see the beatings, so doesn’t realise they happen. And he intellectually understands that what is going on is terrible, awful – he wants to protect his wife from it, save her from ever having to go back – but at the same time, he just doesn’t seem to totally get it. The thing that saves him from being as awful as the husband in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply the fact that he admits that he doesn’t get it and sometimes, he tries his best to listen to Dana. It’s not everything, but it’s a lot.
That said, the relationship I find most interesting in the book isn’t their marriage, but Dana’s and Rufus’ (the boy she saves and continues to visit). She seems him as a young, impressionable boy, friends with a slave girl and willing to see that things are not just what he’s been told, and then you see him grow up in snapshots, mostly moulded by his time, and then experiencing interaction and reaction of a woman with modern values. Dana’s willingness to forgive him his awfulness, and that awfulness itself… it’s a strange, compelling dynamic, and more than anything it’s something to read the book for. Dana’s relationships with the slaves are emotive and brilliant, the conflict that comes from her education and mannerisms compared to theirs, but also the fellowship, but those relationships are far more satisfying, and it’s the frustrating changeability of her relation to Rufus that really pulls you in.
I think this is what stuck with me most from Bloodchild too – Butler writes good conflict between people, good conflict within a person, when they struggle with their own feelings and decisions, and makes you really feel settled within their viewpoint. But she also makes you want to get behind them. And so you feel trapped within their indecision – because they are genuinely difficult decisions – while rooting for them to find a solution. They may not always pick what you would pick, but you’re so grounded in their mental state that it doesn’t matter. And that’s an enormous skill, and, well, I’m a sucker for characters. I know I say it a lot, but I am. I like people I can care about, people I can love, and Dana is definitely that. She looks at herself and compares herself to the people who have lived their whole lives as slaves, and worries she’s not as strong as they are, that she’s coddled by having lived a modern life with a lot less oppression – but then we see her dealing with contemporary oppression too. She thinks less of herself than we as readers do, and that makes me support her all the more.
This is going to sound weird, but part of the reason I loved this book so much is it didn’t feel like SFF – which is part of why I’m drawing the comparisons with The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yes, there’s time travel stuff. And yes, that’s indisputably SFF, I’m not going to claim for a second otherwise. But the way the writing focuses in on building these characters that are genuinely nuanced, and on making the reader actually think about slavery, watch it through the eyes of someone contemporary, rather than as a dry, abstract thing (very much as we see Dana comparing seeing a whipping and the way that violence is portrayed on television – this isn’t a subtle thing we’re being pointed to)… it doesn’t feel like the things SFF would focus on. Maybe this means I’m reading the wrong SFF, and I know it’s not all – Atwood definitely felt the same – but it has a seriousness and a reality to it that I think a lot of SFF lacks, and which absolutely isn’t precluded by having fantastical subject matter. You can still have real people, real relationships. And that’s what I crave, and what Butler has done brilliantly.
I loved this book, I felt uncomfortable reading this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I will seek out Butler again (and again) and I feel a real shame for not having come to her sooner.