Read: May 2023
First of all, this book should not get labelled as “sci-fi” because that really does not fit. It’s a historical time travel fantasy book that never offers any explanation for why the time travel is happening but it definitely feels more of a supernatural connection.
The time travel element is not the story, it is (very cleverly) used as a device to explore the themes of racism, slavery, and the gruesome reality of the past. So please do not go into this book expecting a fun time travel caper! The fact that there is never an explanation for why or how Rufus can call Dana to him is an effective allegory for how white men were entitled to black women’s bodies, and she was just another of his possessions he could reach for whenever he needed. The fact that none of the other characters ever question the time travel either also neatly links into this idea.
Butler does not shy away from the brutal, violent reality of life for black people in 19th Century Maryland, US. There are some truly horrific scenes, and these encounters leave lasting scars for Dana’s ancestors, her own body, and marriage, in the present of the 1970s. I thought it was a powerful choice to have her realise that Rufus (very early on, I don’t think this counts as a spoiler!) was her ancestor, which of course provides her with motivation to keep him alive, but also means she bears witness to (and is even a part of) the trauma that births her own family tree and she cannot intervene to prevent it without risking her own future.
There is danger on almost every page, Dana never feels safe as the tension and cruelty increase, beyond what she wants to believe possible, as Rufus ages from a boy into a man. I thought the tension in their relationship was brilliantly written. Butler also demonstrates so effectively how easy it can be for people to accept slavery, as a woman a liberated woman from the 1970s Dana herself is horrified at how quickly she adjusts to her environment.
All of this is accomplished in so few words! This isn’t a particularly long book (300 pages) and the writing style is plain and concise, something I always appreciate as I generally want plot over description. I haven’t read any other Octavia Butler (though I definitely will now) so I am not familiar with her style, but I think the choice here not to dress anything up in fancy language just makes the grim reality of the story more stark – and reminds us that this is not fantasy, everything that happened in 19th Century Maryland in this book happened somewhere in our past.
I haven’t given it 5 stars because as good as it is something was missing for me. The scenes between Dana and Kevin felt very stilted, at times it was like two robots talking. I could have done with more emotion in their relationship, or something to give her more grounding in 1970. To me, their conversations didn’t feel as real as the ones with other characters.
Overall though this is a real classic and I would recommend it.
Now I need to find some more Octavia E. Butler to read
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