Book review

The Kin by Peter Dickinson (1998)

This book will fill up your buckets of imagination to overflowing. We are in Africa, about two hundred thousand years ago. Many kinds of human beings co-exist. Some have developed language and some have not. Some have mastered fire and some have not. Some are going to do well and some are not. We join a split and scattering group who have been forced to leave their traditional lands. There are not very many of them but they are clever and they have language. That means they can communicate ideas to each other, plan ahead and work co-operatively. The future is theirs.

But the present is difficult. We are with a group of six children, without adult protection since their parents have been killed or taken in an attack. In a series of four stories Peter Dickinson traces the progress of the group. Each story is told from the perspective of a different member of the group. You must read them in order: Suth's Story, Noli's Story, Ko's Story, Mana's Story. They face extraordinary dangers: volcano, earthquake, flood, drought, lion, crocodile and murderous man. It isn't just the grave perils which occupy our attention though, it's the ordinary challenges of life - how to carry fire around with you from one camp to the next, or how to drink from a dribble of water which just drips flat down the cliff face.

Now, how do you define a human being, and why should it be important to do so?

And this man wasn't much taller than Suth, and the bones of his arms and legs were not much thicker than Noli's. His skin, too, was a rich brown, nowhere near as dark as the Kin. His face wasn't like theirs, but long and narrow, with a hooked nose and protruding lips and teeth.
'This man is not people,' muttered Suth.
'You say he is animal?' said Noli.
'I do not know. People speak. His mouth is not hurt, but he does not speak. I speak. He hears the noise. He does not hear the words. He does not hear the thing I say. He is not people.'
Ko was frowning at the puzzle.
'Is he animal, Suth?' he asked. 'We eat him?'
Suth smiled, and shook his head, as much at the puzzle as at Ko's question.

Clearly language is not the defining element of humanity, for this stranger shares all their human emotions. He joins their group and is gentle and friendly. He helps them in times of danger and joins in co-operative ventures, although it takes time to convey ideas to him since he does not have language. Perhaps more important than any of that, his people have religion and perform rituals at the death of a group member.

In a world where so little is understood religion is very important. Noli is the group's seer - she can slip into a trance to receive guidance from their god, Moonhawk. But Noli struggles with the question of whether the gods can exist without people:

A thought came to her. It was strange, too strange to understand.
The First Ones need people. It is not the Place, it is the people.
When the people go, the First Ones go too. They do not die. They vanish. There are no First Ones in the desert
Now these people go. They cannot live in this canyon any more.
So, no First One. Not any more.
Another thought, stranger still.
First Ones come from their people. They are what their people are. These people have no words. Their First One has no words.

In between the chapters of this book Peter Dickinson has put 'Oldtales' which are the tales which the Kin have made up for themselves to explain the world about them and their own place in it. The Oldtales will help you to follow the action of the plot. For example, when the Kin find themselves confronted by a group of deformed people living in a remote volcanic crater they are able to explain amongst themselves that these people are 'monkey', that is, they have no kin. Well, you will have to look at the Oldtale itself to see why monkey had no kin, but obviously the remote group had not travelled to other groups to choose mates and the result was birth defects from inbreeding.

So, how do we define a human being? Perhaps the real definition is biological. If you are not the same species you cannot breed together. In the same way, a human cannot breed with, say, a chimpanzee, but that doesn't mean that the two species cannot share a basic kind of communication. This book is fiction and Peter Dickinson says quite freely that he has made it all up. We know very little about how these very early people lived. I, for one, would be quite happy to be descended from such a resourceful and reasonable group of people as the Kin. But a nasty little voice at the back of my mind keeps saying that we are more likely descended from that other murderous group ...

I thought this book was thrilling from the very first page to the last.

What can I read next?

You may find it under one cover as:

or you may find it as a series of four separate stories:

  • Suth's Story
  • Noli's Story
  • Ko's Story
  • Mana's Story

This is a difficult book to follow, it is so distinctive. If it is the sheer pleasure of reading an epic which attracts you, you should consider reading Philip Pullman's trilogy:

If it is the 'survival' atmosphere of the book which interests you, you could have a look at this one by James Vance Marshall:

Or any of the books on my Desert Island list, but perhaps especially this one by Scott O'Dell:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Kin features in these lists: