This book needed to be about 150 to 200 pages longer. Those pages would have been filled with scenes that would have been horrifying to read -- injustices and brutalities large and small; physical and emotional; collective and individual. There would have been a larger cast of characters in both timelines, more of whom we got to know personally. We would have hoped for them, wept with them, raged against their oppressors on their behalf. They would have engaged our hearts not just our heads, and become people we cared about not just understood as symbols of their times.
The book would have had more references to historical events, both in its present (1976) and its past (1819ish). These events would have been occurring to and reflected by the book's characters experiencing these events, not the book's main character/narrator drawing upon her childhood history classes and telling the reader about them, or reading about them in a book.
The book needed a third and much stronger narrative in the just-before-present timeline of the Dana/Kevin relationship, to bring a greater focus on the evolution of oppression: what it was for people enslaved; what it became for their descendents. Dana's family history needed to be brought into the story - so we could see a personal example. There needed to be more scenes showing the hostility and hatred that she and Kevin experienced as a bi-racial couple in the 1976 timeline. We got a couple of sentences in the pre-1976 timeline as told by Kevin / Dana, and some references to the illegality of it in the 1819 timeline. Not enough.
This book needed an unambiguously evil antagonist in the 1819 timeline. I think it was supposed to be Rufus' father - however, the general description of him stated clearly that he was "fair", "by no means the worst" of the type of slave-owners around in 1819. Not good enough. He absolutely needed to be out-and-out evil, cruel, violent. Why did she shirk away from this?
Instead, she made both Rufus and his father kind of so-so evil. While the strange love-hate dynamic between Dana and Rufus made sense, from a narrative perspective, it did not accomplish what Butler needed: to show Dana succumbing to the mentality of the oppressed. I'm not sure exactly what the fix would have been: perhaps more moments of confounding loyalty on Dana's part to Rufus, without her rationalizing/intellectualizing them. Each scene showing her lack of power needed to be fleshed out, rather than her aftermath reflections doing the heavy lifting. I almost wonder if the Rufus character needed to be re-written to show him as a man out of his time, and as her saviour (as she was his), rather than the strange, bi-polar manipulator/aggressor that he was.
Creating Rufus as a character the reader very much liked, but whom Dana needed to kill to free herself from oppression
, would have given this relationship the kind of dynamic tension to raise it from confusing and kind of boring, to wham-pow-oh-my-god, will-she-won't-she-she-must-she-can't territory. That's what we needed here.
And that's really what it comes down to. The bulk of this novel is dialogue between Dana and Kevin, instead of action. It's low drama, instead of high; rationalizing and intellectualizing and book-learnin', instead of feeling, breathing, doing. It's not Shriver-levels of crazy-making
exposition, because the basic story is such a good one, and such a strong idea.
I keep trying with Butler, because at the core, there is an unbelievable imagination and story concept at work here. She strives really high, and almost makes it. But the execution is just not there.