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May 31, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

It took me about 200 pages to get into Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel The Lacuna. Usually, I would not persevere so much through a book that wasn’t satisfying, but this is Barbara Kingsolver, it’s been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and I was intrigued by reviewers who’ve had such different reactions and assessments. I’m so glad I kept on though, because the last two-thirds of the novel totally gripped me, I’m now sure that it’s one of my favourite novels this year (or ever), and when it ended, I was absolutely heartbroken.

The Lacuna is the story of Harrison Shepherd, half-American and half-Mexican, a man who is a foreigner no matter where he goes. His lonely childhood spent in Mexico, in the shadow of his errant mother always on the hunt for a new man with some money. Against a backdrop of revolution, Harrison learns skills both in survival and the culinary arts. After a period of schooling back in America (during which he is witness to the Bonus Army riots), Harrison returns to Mexico and becomes a servant in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, mixing paints and making dinners. When Rivera’s friend Trotsky arrives in Mexico, Harrison becomes his secretary, and when Trotsky is murdered, Kahlo helps him get out of the country. Settling down in Asheville, North Carolina– and still traumatized by Trotsky’s death, and unable to leave his house– Harrison becomes a novelist, writing stories of Mexican history from the perspective of the common-man. In the era of McCarthyism, however, Harrison’s ties become suspect, and this tragic period in American history takes Harrison as its victim.

The book is composed of fragments, from Harrison’s diaries, letters and newspaper clippings, all compiled by a mysterious someone called Violet Brown. The fragmentation was what put me off at first, as well as copious description of Mexican landscapes, but as Harrison’s life began to be tied up with those of such interesting people as Kahlo and Trotsky, I got hooked on the plot. And then as the story went further, details of Harrison himself became clearer and I found him to be an incredibly sympathetic and compelling figure.

A lacuna is a hole, an empty place, and Harrison himself is quoted as saying that, “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” Plenty of reviewers have found that empty space to be Harrison himself, that the soul of this novel is hollow, but I thought otherwise. Of course, he is an elusive character, the “eye” much more so than the “I”, but his vision is so clear that we’re given to understand everything around him. That although we’re not treated to a view of Harrison himself, the Harrison-shaped space that’s left out is so well-defined at its edges that he’s real, multi-dimensional. The space ceases to be hollow at all.

What the lacuna is indeed, however, is this whole book itself. These fragments were what went untold from Harrison’s official story, what he– determined that he would not have to justify himself or answer to anyone– persuaded his secretary Violet Brown to burn one afternoon, but she didn’t. She’d gone against his wishes and kept all his papers: “If God speaks for the man who keeps quiet, then Violet Brown be His instrument.” Interestingly though, the book still contains numerous gaps, not least of which being those imposed by Brown herself, the “unimportant” pieces she offhandedly admits to omitting from the whole. A reader can’t help but wonder if she’s the lacuna here, that she might have shaped these records with her own kind of agenda and what particular spin has been the result of this.

Because the lesson of The Lacuna itself is that history is a series of accidents, that what becomes official record is just circumstance. Harrison writes to Kahlo, “The power of words is awful, Frida. Sometimes I want to bury my typewriter in a box of quilts. The radio makes everything worse, because of the knack for amplifying dull sounds. Any two words spoken in haste might become the law of the land. But you never know which two. You see why I won’t talk to the newsman.”

There are obvious parallels made between the paranoia of 1950s’ America, and the American political climate today, and also between the outraged responses to Harrison Shepherd’s work (usually by people who have never read it; “Why does a person spend money on a stamp, to spout bile at a stranger?”) and responses Kingsolver herself has received to her writing. Sometimes these parallels are too obvious, Kingsolver’s history taking on a determinedly teleological bent, but these instances are rare enough to be forgiven, particularly since these connections are the whole point– that we are tethered to history, like it or not.

Kingsolver has rendered history here with such richness and colour, resurrected real-life figures through the wonder of fiction, and with the the astounding power that is her reputation as a novelist, she has imagined her story into a world that is decidedly real.

3 thoughts on “The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver”

  1. Kristin says:

    I’m so glad that you liked it! I’ve been trying to convince a few friends IRL to read it so we can discuss, but no takers so far. Like you said, it’s BARBARA KINGSOLVER! You’re going to get something good out of it whether you love the whole thing or not, right?

    1. Kerry says:

      I really thought about packing it in in the beginning, and I know several other readers who did. But once I got to the end, I understood why she wrote it as she did. Still not sure if this represents the readers’ failure, or the novels. But yes, it’s a stunning book. Your review convinced to keep on with it!

  2. Jane says:

    Thank you for your review. I just finished it and it was so nice to hear someone else’s thoughts on the book and plot and characters. Thanks for posting this.

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