THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Quote:

“Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (DEC 10, 2009)

Harrison Shepherd’s odyssey through three tumultuous decades of the 20th century begins in a lonely boyhood between two worlds – America and Mexico. It continues through the Depression and World War II, and culminates in the ugly, surreal hysteria of the Red Scare.

Along the way Shepherd mixes plaster for the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, becomes a confidant of his colorful wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, serves as secretary to the exiled Bolshevik, Leon Trotsky, and becomes a celebrity in his own right. Readers will bond with his kind soul, his boundless curiosity, his youthful exuberance and his self-deprecating wit as he experiences the best and worst his times have to offer.

An ambitious, tightly organized novel, Kingsolver’s latest is mostly assembled from journals Shepherd began keeping as a boy – journals in which the pronoun “I” is seldom used. Archivist’s notes, letters to and from friends and enemies, newspaper articles (both real and fictional), and even congressional testimony offer added perspectives.

Uprooted from his suburban Virginia home at age 12 in 1929 and transplanted to an isolated island hacienda in his mother’s native Mexico, Shepherd pretty much brings himself up, making himself useful in the kitchen and spending hours learning to navigate a mysterious underwater cave (the first lacuna). With his feckless mother flitting (downhill) from lover to lover, Harrison’s schooling is sparse, but his reading is prodigious.

When his mother takes up with a man from Mexico City, Shepherd avoids a Catholic school for hopeless cases by putting his bread-making skills to work mixing plaster for Diego Rivera. Eventually his American father is induced to take him back – but only to put him in a Washington boarding school.

Ostracized by the other students, he takes up with an older boy whose formal education has been interrupted by the Depression, but whose knowledge of the world is as fascinating as it is mystifying. Most of this tortuous interlude is expunged (the relevant journal destroyed in 1947), and the reader will surmise that Shepherd’s budding homosexuality has something to do with that.

Returning to Mexico, he joins the Rivera-Kahlo household as a domestic and is treated as a servant or a member of the family as it suits them. Ardent communists, the flamboyant artists are all for workers’ rights – as long as it doesn’t impinge on the smooth workings of their household.

Trotsky takes refuge with them and Shepherd takes to him immediately – a kindly, fatherly, unflappable figure – pursuing his cause despite Stalin’s death threats and rabid persecution by the press. After Trotsky’s assassination, Shepherd flees Mexico for the U.S., the household in upheaval and under suspicion.

Settling in Asheville, N.C., Shepherd, not yet 30, becomes an agoraphobic recluse, his sexuality carefully closeted, his exuberance taking flight in his writing. His first novel – a swashbuckling tale of Aztec downfall – is an immediate bestseller. He struggles to reconcile his horror of the limelight with his joy in success.

As fame begins to get out of hand, he hires a sympathetic widow, Violet Brown, who becomes his amanuensis and eventually his archivist. A countrywoman with a practical turn of mind, Brown nudges him into the world and discovers a wider world for herself.

Her loyalty and the hysteria of the anti-communist tidal wave drive the last section of the book, while Shepherd guards himself with dry wit and naivety, his privacy battered by rumor, half-truths and lies.

The lacuna – a gap in the whole – directs the flow of this vivid, atmospheric story. From the start Shepherd shapes himself by what’s missing. An absent father and flighty mother make him resourceful. He notes the strangeness of the world around him, makes friends with people unlike himself. He attaches himself by being helpful and acquires skills that come in useful throughout his life.

Sources outside the journal fill in some of the things he leaves out – from book reviews to hints at his sexual life – as well as pointing out the sometimes yawning abyss between truth and perception.

The book is as demanding as it is captivating. The form sometimes leaves a distance (yes, a gap) between the reader and the protagonist, which can be exasperating. And Kingsolver’s left-leaning politics are almost shrill in their insistence on outrage.

These are small quibbles, however, and Kingsolver’s mastery of the partnership between big themes and personal engagement should please her fans and win new ones.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 620 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (November 3, 2009)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Barbara Kingsolver
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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December 10, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Latin American/Caribbean, Literary, Mexico, Orange Prize, Unique Narrative

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