Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is a brilliantly crafted novel, part historical fiction and part political statement.   Its protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, an American-born author who spent his childhood in Mexico, and most of his adult life in the United States.  As a young boy in Mexico, Harrison spent hours in the sea, exploring underwater wildlife and la lacuna:  “Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. … It goes into the belly of the world. (p. 35)”  He later found work as a secretary and cook for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became acquainted with Leon Trotsky who lived with them during part of his exile.

The book is presented as a compilation of Shepherd’s diaries, kept religiously almost since he could write.  Shepherd’s stenographer Violet Brown transcribed the diaries after his death.  And in this labor of love the English definition of lacuna applies:

The notebook that burned, then. People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it’s called.  The hole in the story, and this one is truly missing still … (p. 112)

Shepherd became a famous author, writing adventure and romance novels set in Mexico.  He was unmarried, and somewhat of a recluse, emotionally scarred by certain events in his life.  In the late 1940s he found himself under FBI scrutiny, after they discovered his previous association with Trotsky.   Kingsolver writes convincingly about the growing hysteria in the country during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee:

“Whenever I hear this kind of thing,” he said, “a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, ‘How can he be such a sap?  Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’  A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.” (p. 443)

While the story dealt directly with McCarthyism, I don’t think Kingsolver was only writing about that era, over half a century ago.  The second half of The Lacuna reminded me of the years immediately following September 11, 2001: the prevailing American public opinion, and resulting public policy.  This was a clever way for Kingsolver to express her own political views.   And at the same time, she wrote a complex story with likable characters and a conclusion that tied a number of elements together in a most satisfying way.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. I’m pleased that you decided to read it now – I thought that you might enjoy this one 🙂

    I found the writing too passive, but you seem to be able to cope with gentler writing than me. Another book that divides us!!

  2. It seems that opinions are divided about this book. It makes me want to read it even more. Although I think I had better start with The Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver.

  3. @Jill, Terri, Jackie: it was the combination of your three opinions that inspired me to read this as soon as I did. Two of you loved it, one hated it (but the one — Jackie — thought it was a book I’d like). It was a great way to start Orange July.

    @Iris, The Poisonwood Bible is still my favorite Kingsolver book … hope you get to it someday.

  4. I left comment on this review at the Orange Project page before I realized it was you. Glad to hear you enjoyed the Poisonwood Bible, I’m going to try that one next. You haven’t been coming up in my reader so I followed your new location and you’re coming up now as “title unknown”?! At least I found you again. 🙂

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