Barbara Kingsolver wrote this epic novel in 2009 and there are hundreds of well-written reviews online but the book moved me to at least recommend it and share what I found so profoundly enjoyable.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
I “read” about 30 books a year. The quote marks are because two thirds of them are audio books on my daily commute. Many are read by the author but rarely does the author put in a performance like this one! I think she has a future as an actor! She does accents, and different voices, and of course has the benefit of knowing what her characters are thinking!
What most amazes me about Kingsolver is that she creates an alternate world. On the surface it would appear to exist in this same world but the characters she creates and the way she weaves their lives together makes me marvel and wonder “How could someone create this?”
I still consider her book The Poisonwood Bible to be one of the most powerful and engrossing novels I have ever read. Her characters have quirky traits that make them real and surreal at the same time. This makes her books draw you into some parallel universe. They make me feel like I’m looking into some sort of magic glass or crystal ball.
The Lacuna is historical fiction and begins in 1930’s Mexico, an exotic world that drew me in from the start. The primary character, an author, returns to the US to write exotic fiction set in Mexico. You see what she did there?
As a teenager in Mexico, the main character, Harrison Shepherd meets and lives with famous painter and political activist Diego Rivera. He goes on to develop a deep and long-lasting friendship with Rivera’s even more interesting wife, Frida Kahlo. This is during the time when they hosted exiled Soviet Lev Trotsky! While it’s not a new trick to place a fictional character in the middle of actual history, Kingsolver does it particularly well! It’s not hard to tell that Kingsolver is enamored with the story of Kahlo. Of all the actual historical figures in the book her story comes alive as if she’s standing in front of you.
As if that period is not enough of a history lesson Shepherd returns to the US after the murder of Trotsky (this should not be a spoiler…it actually happened). The reclusive writer takes up residence in Asheville, NC thriving in the United States of World War 2 until he runs afoul of McCarthy era politics and a paranoid government that uses the label of “communist” or “un-American” as a way of oppressing its people.
The book does a stunning job of posing some obvious, yet penetrating questions. How could something like this happen–and not that long ago either? How were the restrictions on freedom by the Committee on Un-American Acts different from those of the despised communist regimes? How is it our country seems to constantly be cozying up to a foreign leader who a decade later becomes the enemy?
I loved this book and did not want it to end. The voice of the book takes the form of journal entries, and news articles. It’s an interesting device making it less of a narrative/dialogue form and more of a stream of consciousness The voice of Shepherd is so eloquent and clever; while the voice of his longtime typist is simple, unadorned, folksy like she is, but also keen and worldly. I find it so skillful that the author can write for two characters in the same language but so very differently.
Another thing I loved about the book is that the main character sits on what, in the 1940’s and 50’s would have been a huge personal secret. As a reader you just keep waiting for this to be his undoing. In my mind it goes from being a red herring to being a nuanced way of illustrating just how ridiculous the entire Committee on Un-American Activities was.
The theme of the book is repeated several times, “It’s what you don’t know about a person that matters.” This ties back to the title, The Lacuna. I may have liked the book so much because for once I got what the title meant! The book describes a lacuna as a literary gap in a story, missing information. In Mexico, however, the word describes an underwater cave, a secret passage. Although I am not the best on interpreting symbolism and allegory, the point seems to be that missing information, what you don’t know about a person, can become a form of secret passage.
Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for educating me, for making me think, and for giving me the exotic escape to a different world!