The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver

Mexico, 1935.  Harrison Shepherd is working in the household of famed muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo.  Sometimes cook, sometimes secretary, Shepherd is always an observer, recording his experiences in diaries and notebooks.  When exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky arrives, Shepherd inadvertently casts in his lot with art and revolution and his aim for an invisible life is thwarted forever.

This has been on my to read pile ever since I read Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura’s excellent novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs. The title, The Lacuna alludes to much in the text, the gaps in the reader’s knowledge of Shepherd’s life, his feelings of not fitting in, and of the other characters stories and in part their motivations.

Like a game of football, this is a book of two halves. The latter part I found to be a lot more engaging, partly because it allows the narrator more room to speak, and also as it helps fill in another gap in history that I hadn’t really much knowledge about.  Perhaps that is excusable as most of European literature and history is focusing on the rebuilding of the continent after WWII and our own part in the Cold War.

The past is all we know of the future

To begin with I wasn’t overly blown away by the writing, more annoying was that certain themes were alluded to and then outright brought to my attention through the narrator. It would have been much more subtle, if left hanging in the background, for the reader to discover, even if on a second or third read through.

I didn’t get much of a sense of Diego Rivera as a character either, he is fairly peripheral, his wife Frida is more interesting and remains pleasingly enigmatic, although she is seen as faultless, precisely because of her faults. Trotsky is mainly seen as a hero/saint type of figure, lacking some of the complexity that could have made him more interesting, as in Padura’s book.  Shepherd himself is detached in this first part, as he struggles to discover his place, and true self.

The second half of the book I really enjoyed.  There were many topics explored to recommend it, the themes of the purpose of art, its messages and intellectual honesty; censorship, misinformation and manipulation, and how politics is never viewed with a human element attached.  Shepherd’s use of words and understanding of how they can affect people, for good or for ill is a really compelling shift, as is the mirroring of the crazed policies of Stalin and the less familiar (to me) but equally idiotic practises of U.S. Paranoia.

The culture built on Hyperbole

At its heart this is a book about identity – personal, political and national – and finding a place to fit in, to be understood, and the consequences of actions.  The power of guilty secrets withheld, and claustrophobia of waiting for the axe to drop is palpable.  After a slow start there is much to recommend this book, it has an interesting mix of diary entries and newspaper clips which mostly works but sometimes hinders the flow of the story.  There is more to recommend The Lacuna than not, whilst certain aspects and a slow start let it down, it became a much better read as the pages turned.

22 Replies to “The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver”

    1. I’ve been told that The Poisonwood Bible is well worth a read and I almost got a copy of that but need to be a bit more frugal what with airport terminal tax in the province we had travelled to. This one is a big almost 700 pages and being my first Kingsolver, I enjoyed it but I wonder how well it holds up compared to TPB.

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  1. Great review, I have had this tbr forever. I’ve generally really enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver novels, but have still to read this one and Flight Behaviour.

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    1. Thank you! I picked this up purely for the Trotsky subject matter, I wanted to see how it read compared to Padura but I will certainly be looking to read more when I can get my fat fingers on some.

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    1. It seems that our trajectories of Kingsolver reading are goingopposite in the opposite direction. TPB is on the list to read asap.

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  2. Dear Ste J, I fell in love madly with this book, as you know, and I loved the way it maintained a close contact with the different atmospheres of the reality profiled, or perhaps the realities, first the oceanic, warm, tropical days and nights, open and beautiful, and then the imprisoning, close world of the American city. I think it’s easily one of the best books on politics of the 20th century (or is it the 21st?), precisely because it underlines the point “the personal is political” so well, a point I’ve always found irritating, but which Kingsolver proves the truth of in her book. If you’re looking for another Kingsolver to read, why not go totally for atmosphere as a subject, and saving the earth by harvesting, and etc? Try “Prodigal Summer,” I mean. It’s about how lush and green and giving the earth and some of its inhabitants are, and it’s really a book for August-early September, at least in the U.S. I guess where you are, because the growing season is in different months, you might have some more time to get to it. I really think she’s one of the best contemporary writers around.

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    1. Prodigal Summer is a good shout. I wish it was as easy as England to just go to the local shop and be confident of a good choice of Kingsolver. No matter, I shall persevere and keep the search up. There is always a chance as most of the books in second hand bookshops seem to come from Britain and then some from American sources. It does give rise to some surprising finds though, as will no doubt be revealed soon but spoiler alert, I unearthed Raffles recently which made me happy.

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      1. When you say “Raffles,” are you referring to the gentleman thief? Yes, he’s a blast. That’s from about the 1920’s, isn’t it? I have a copy somewhere, though I suspect it’s packed away.

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        1. I knew you would be familiar with that very same Raffles. He’s been on my list for a while thanks to a reminder in one of the Extraordinary League of Gentlemen books.

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    1. A re-read where you have to make little effort to fetch the book, sounds perfect to me. I remember after reading first Padura and then this and wanting to learn more about both her and Diego. Maybe this time I will get around to it.

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  3. Thanks for this review, Ste J. I haven’t read any Kingsolver and have read differing opinions of her work which have meant she isn’t on my tbr pile yet. Raffles, however, I have read and enjoyed, though not as much as I’d hoped.

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    1. I almost picked Raffles up but plumped for something more epic in pages. I may leave it a little longer now, I suspect my feeling now about Raffles reflect your Kingsolver feelings.

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