The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna
Barbara Kingsolver
2009, 507 pp.
* * * *

A lacuna is a gap, especially in a narrative. It’s also the hook and title of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel. The book has not garnered brilliant reviews, perhaps because its setting and scope led critics to expect a Mexican version of The Poisonwood Bible. The latter work is such a masterpiece that Kingsolver may never duplicate it, but The Lacuna is an enjoyable read on its own for readers who can put aside expectations and let it be what it is: a good, but not transcendent work.

The book’s protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, born to Salomé, a freewheeling Mexican mother, and a button-down overly serious American diplomat far too boring and normal to hold onto his tempestuous wife. She and her son are soon off to Mexico, where Salomé becomes the mistress of a series of powerful men whose wealth she hopes will keep her in the delayed-development flapper lifestyle she’d like to become accustomed. As one might expect, things don’t quite work out that way. Harrison, his Anglo name notwithstanding, grows up with a Mexican identity and Spanish as his first language. We follow his life from 1929 to his death in 1951, some times through first-person accounts and sometimes through the journals he meticulously keeps and which his personal secretary discovers.

This is an ambitious book that’s part pure imagination and part historical novel. As Harrison grows up, his very residence is determined by his mother’s current domestic situation; sometimes he’s in Mexico, at others he’s in the United States with his bland father. In this regard, the lacuna is also symbolic of the gaps in Harrison’s identity (and that identity crisis extends to sexuality as well.) But even when he’s in tony U.S. prep schools Harrison feels more Mexican than American, and his fascination for the ancient Aztecs only fuels this. At a crucial moment in his life during the late 1930s, Harrison is back in Mexico and working in the household of muralist Diego Rivera and his volatile wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. He is also there when they host (and try to protect) Russian exile Lev Trotsky. Kahlo encourages Harrison to pursue both his personal passion and that for writing. After Trotksy is murdered by Stalin’s assassins, Harrison returns to the United States and becomes a successful writer of sensational historical novels set in ancient Mexico. The final part of the book sees him in Asheville, North Carolina, during the Red Scare—a naïve innocent about to be trapped in demagogic web. Indeed, the book’s final lacuna is the gap between truth and manufactured reality. Harrison is not the man anyone—accusers, publishers, lovers, his public—presumes him to be, but he fails to grasp the ways in which perception becomes its own sort of truth.

I found this a rewarding book, but I’d yield to those who charge that Kingsolver overplays her hand. Mixing fictional and historical characters is always tricky business because we know too much about the latter. Does Kingsolver romanticize Kahlo and Trotsky? Probably. Kahlo is sufficiently self-centered, but Kingsolver gives us a tender core that’s more what she’d like Kahlo to have been than the historical record reveals. In like manner, Trotsky seems more avuncular than a fiery revolutionary. And it certainly stretches credulity to think that Harrison’s novels—as Kingsolver describes them—would have ever caught the public imagination. She’s also guilty of working the lacuna metaphor too hard, as she does with a seemingly bottomless water-filled cave that’s an object of Harrison’s obsession.

Still, it’s a great treat to read Kingsolver’s descriptions of pre-World War II Mexico; they obliterate American popular perceptions of Mexico. It’s also refreshing to see American life through the critical eyes of a (half) expatriate. Few writers deal with culture clashes as well as Kingsolver, and The Lacuna is another reminder that American values are open to the critiques that U.S. residents are all too willing to apply outside their own borders. I wouldn’t say that the pace of this book moves at a fast clip, but Harrison is a sufficiently enigmatic character that he is able to move among the giant personalities that inhabit this book: Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky, Joe McCarthy, Salomé…. It is not easy to spotlight a small fish in a tank populated by sharks and it is a testimony to Kingsolver’s craft that she can do so. A masterpiece? No. But The Lacuna is nonetheless a superior work of fiction.

1 comment:

susanb said...

I'd just decided to put this book on interloan through the Finger Lakes System and here it is