Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (2009) (*****). Taking a page out of Gordon’s book, I gave this to Julie so that I could read it. I justlove Barbara Kingsolver’s stories. This one actually took me about one hundred pages to really get hooked – a day on jury duty did the trick (law school and five miserable years practicing law is a high price to pay to never again get chosen for a jury, but it works; on top of that, I actually loved law school, so I guess the get-out-of-jury-duty-free-and-read-a-book-all-day card is really a bonus, not consolation). The Lacuna is structured as a collection of diaries, letters, newspaper articles and congressional testimony, assembled by Violet Brown, the secretary of Harrison Shepherd, a popular writer of romantic adventure novels. Shepherd is the product of an ill-fated marriage between an American government bureaucrat and a Mexican woman who leaves her husband and returns with the twelve-year-old Harrison to Mexico, in the futile search for a wealthy man to marry and keep her. While living on the hacienda of a rich oil man, and without any school to attend, Harrison swims in the ocean, reads adventure stories, learns to cook from the kind Mexican chef, and writes everything down in the little account book he steals from the housekeeper. From the chef he learns a technique for making perfect pan dulce with European white flour, a skill that turns out to be similar to mixing plaster, which lands the young Shepherd a job with the muralist Diego Rivera. Shepherd eventually joins the staff at the Rivera-Kahlo household, first as a cook and later as a typist. When Lev Trotsky, in exile and fleeing Stalin’s assassins, joins the household, Shepherd becomes his typist. I wonder if this section of the novel would have been quite as intriguing if I hadn’t recently read a biography of Freda Kahlo; at any rate, I’ve always suspected I was born in the wrong decade of the twentieth century, and should have been a bohemian communist, not a middle class housewife. At any rate, I loved the quiet, quotidian portraits of these larger-than-life figures, as seen through the eyes of the understated Shepherd (even while I suspect that the portrait of Trotsky might be a bit overly-sympathetic -- I might have to read one of the new biographies of Trotsky soon). When Trotsky is assassinated, a deeply traumatized Shepherd returns to war-time America, settling in Asheville, North Carolina, where lives a largely reclusive life, forever bemused by his own wild success as a popular novelist. That success turns sharply sour when Shepherd is brought under the surreal scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which ruins his life and career on account of his former associations with Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky. Among the intriguing questions The Lacuna asks is whether and how is it possible to capture a life in words, and how differently it gets captured, depending on ones perspective. The Lacuna is the intriguing story of a life, one lived in the shadow of the epic political drama of the twentieth century. But it is a life filtered through multiple lenses, unintentionally told, in which, as the title suggests, what is left out – the missing pieces – are likely as important as what is left in. The relationship among words, silence, story and truth are intriguing to me.

1 comment:

Thorn said...

I was hoping to write about this book tonight, but now that I'm home I'm too tired. I thought it was spectacular, Kingsolver's finest. I need to reread what you've written in the morning when my brain is working again!