I have been wanting to read Octavia E. Butler for some time, she was one of the most well-known African-American science fiction writers, with a reputation akin to the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou who sadly passed away at the age of 58 in 2006.
I guess it was the science-fiction label that stopped me reading her until now, having read Kindred her best-known work, I understand why Butler refers to this particular novel not as science fiction, but fantasy. She uses that element of fantasy to transport a character back to that historical period.
The novel begins with a shocking revelation, that immediately puts the reader on guard. After reading the first line, I was ready for something brutal to occur. It did, but not what I expected.
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
It is 1976 and Dana is remembering everything that happened leading up to that moment. She is a Black woman writer married to a white man, a writer named Kevin. On her 26th birthday, something strange happens, she feels dizzy and nauseated, the room blurs and darkens around her, symptoms she will come to recognise with horror, signalling she is about to be transported back in time.
I was at the edge of a woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming …
The child is Rufus, it is 1815 in Maryland and Dana has time-travelled (without explanation) to an era where her liberties are severely constrained, to save the life of an ancestor. She must try and survive while she is there and figure out how to return to her own life. Until the next time his life is danger and she is called back again.
It’s a riveting account, putting a modern woman into an era where her attitude, education and way of being in the world are a danger to herself. It reminded me of Andrea Levy’s story of slavery in the Jamaican plantations Long Song both writer’s had a similar objective, to get inside the world of their ancestors, to imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings.
Levy looks at slavery through the eyes of a slave and does so with both humour and distaste. Butler transports a modern women, someone like her in fact, back in time, and makes us feel what life was like in 1815, showing us how someone from our own time might cope if sent back there, knowing what we know now. It’s an interesting predicament.
The longer Dana stays, the more she begins to feel part of the household, familiar and accepting.
That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places in the householder of a slaveholder.
Rufus is the son of the plantation owner, the person Dana is connected to, as he ages and becomes more like his father, she struggles to rationalise her feelings towards him.
I looked at him again and let myself understand. It was that destructive single-minded love of his. He loved me. Not the way he loved Alice, thank God. He didn’t seem to want to sleep with me. But he wanted me around – someone to talk to, someone who would listen to him and care what he said, care about him.
And I did. However little sense it made, I cared. I must have. I kept forgiving him for things…
It’s a thought-provoking novel that uses that element of fantasy to place a woman of the 1970’s into the 1800’s to look at that life and legacy from the inside out. We can imagine how that would have stretched the imagination of the author and the challenges that created for her, grappling with what she discovered there, with what she was becoming aware of.