on 11 December 2014
This novel centers on a young man called Shepherd who spends much of his childhood in Mexico, his mother's homeland, and then returns to the US where he becomes a famous historical novelist.
It runs from 1929 to 1951 and covers the Mexican Revolution, the assassination of Trotsky, the Second World War and aftermath, with the emphasis on the witch hunt in the US to track down Communists.
In its obsession with finding subversives, the US political establishment destroyed the lives of many people who were not reds under the bed, including that of Shepherd. (It's a theme that has been done to death in films and books because many "artistic" types were among the victims.)
The first part in Mexico is pretty good, with lively descriptions of the anti-religious fervor of the time and a portrayal of strong characters such as Shepherd's doomed mother who becomes a plaything for any man who will have her.
Less successful is the appearance of real people like Trotsky, Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, whom Shepherd unconvincingly befriends. (One of the main failings of the book is its inability to project Shepherd's Mexican roots so it's difficult to believe he could have made this intimate connection.)
Unfortunately, it's downhill all the way from then on when Shepherd decides to go back to the US.
Whereas he was a kind of apprentice cook in Mexico, he suddenly becomes a best-selling author in the US. (I didn't get that breakthrough either.)There are several hints that he is a homosexual but this is not spelt out until about three quarters of the way through.
Maybe I am being unfair because Shepherd is a diffident person who finds it hard to make acquaintances and is reticent about his sexuality.
However, I think Kingsolver has overreached herself not only by trying to cover so many subjects at the same time but also by the format she uses.
The book is mainly a journal written by Shepherd but it is not presented chronologically. Instead, there are also extracts from Shepherd's secretary, an irritating folksy character called Mrs. Brown who presumably represents everything that is decent about the good ole USA, along with newspaper articles, letters etc.
This switching around makes the story difficult to follow at times and I confess I was desperate to get to the last of its 507 pages.
Ten years ago, Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible revealed the grim politics in the Congo. The Lacuna has a similarly political theme, this time turning her focus on Mexico and The US in the 1940s and 1950s.
I have to confess that I had to look up "Lacuna" in the dictionary. For the benefit of anyone as dumb as me, then it means a gap or missing piece. The title is apt on a number of levels. The book is told as if written by the fictional young boy and later writer Harrison Shepherd, initially though his diaries and later in newspaper articles and letters all compiled by the equally fictitious VB whose identity and relationship to the narrator are revealed later in the book.
Harrison grows up in Mexico (his flapper mother is divorced from his American father who still lives in "gringolandia". Always drawn to writing his experiences, after briefly attending a school in the US (where some parts of the diary are missing - one example of a Lacuna) he returns to Mexico and encounters the muralists and political activists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo joining their household as a cook and mixer of plaster for Rivera. Harrison forms a connection with Frida (though unlike most of her male connections, Harrison is clearly gay and is more of a confidant to Frida) and through this connection gets to work with the exiled Lev Trotsky.
Later in the book more real life characters are introduced including the hunt for communist sympathisers led by J Edgar Hoover.
Another interpretation of the Lacuna is some of the "missing" history of the US - much of it political history that it would perhaps rather ignore. The first instance is when Harrison is at school and encounters the WWI veterans who camp in Washington DC to protest at being denied their bonus payments, and then onto the blindness to the actions of Trotsky's great adversary Stalin and later onto the communist paranoia that gripped the US. Kingsover brings her talent for political fiction onto both the US and Mexico in ways that are unsettling. While some of the articles quoted as press are indeed fictional, the reader gets a cold chill when they check some of the most scary ones and finds that they are in fact genuine - particularly in the tone taken against the Japanese in the mid 1940s - with not even the poor Japanese Beetle safe from Life magazines xenophobia.
Once or twice the clash between fiction and reality is clunky - Harrison asks Trotsky `so what really happened with Stalin' - but mostly it's a fascinating read and reveals much about the effective birth of the modern (ie post war) American ideal as well as the nature of imperialism in Mexico and the relationship between art and politics.
I loved it and recommend it highly. It's a mark of great credit that the fictional characters are as interesting as the real ones - particularly given the cast of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky et al.
I thought The Lacuna was a stronger book than The Poisonwood Bible. A boy grows up in offbeat style hitched to his mother who hitches herself to wealthy men in Mexico. He picks up a love of literature and writing, deep skills in cooking and a love of exploring underwater, during which he travels through an underwater tunnel into a far cave, the first lacuna of the book. Without spoiling the story it has an important role to play.
As a young man, he connects to Mexico's artworld by becoming the cook to Diego Rivera and lover of Frida Kahlo. From this he becomes personal secretary to the exiled Communist leader, Trotsky and his present at his assassination. He travels incognito to the United States, where he was born and where his father still lives, and becomes a successful writer with a loyal secretary of his own until the anti-Communist witch hunts that degraded America begin.
So much for the bones of the plot, but it has a deep sensual elegance in form and writing: something of the world of cuisine enters into the design and language, perhaps. And it has richly imagined and characterised protagonists, both fictional and from the world of fact. This interleaving of real and imagined is very successful, I think, although each person feels as real as the others. Wonderful writing, description, characterisation, coming-of-age, rich loving, tragedy, a moving narrative: all of these would be enough to make it a highly successful novel.
But The Lacuna is more than just a novel, it is a searing indictment in the tradition of The Grapes of Wrath of a disgraceful period in American history in which the universal comes to life in the individual. The lacuna, the emptiness, the hole, the gap in the world, is a lacuna in the moral history of America when the spirit of freedom and discovery that made it the exciting place in the emerging modern world was bankrupted by fear and the abuse that fear breeds. When the wounds of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo jails are still fresh with us, it's a timely reminder of how tyranny can sneak up on you.
Barbara Kingsolver's great achievement is to deliver this with such delicacy, carried on the wings of nurtured hope and of mournful loss of opportunity in a young life. By the same token, her conclusion suggests that hope is not easy to conquer. What has been lost can be found.
A great, must read, literary and fictional treat that packs a social punch.
on 17 March 2010
Since I read Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver has been one of my favourite writers, and I was not disappointed with her latest effort. Almost entirely written in diary and letter form, it is a private and intimate look at the life of Harrison Sheperd, a half American, half Mexican writer. Most of it is from his own perspective, starting as a young boy and covering the span of his adult life.
It is remarkable because of how reality meets fiction in the cast of people he spends his young life in Mexico with - Painter Frida Kahlo and the exiled potential successor of Lenin, Leon Trotsky. We are given a privileged view of both character's lives, Frida's affairs and health problems, Trotsky's life in exile, and, ultimately, his assassination. In this, the book is unique and extremely interesting. These historical figures take on colourful personalities and depth, and whilst they might be a little romanticised, it never gets too close to trite for comfort.
One criticism I do have is consistency, as the book reads like two separate stories: Before and after the assassination. Sheperd has to leave Mexico after the assassination and book takes on a much slower pace - the story concerns itself with other matters, like the anti-communist hysteria in North America after WW2, civil liberties and gay rights. The colourful characters and the buzzing atmosphere of Mexico was suddenly replaced with stark loneliness in clinical US suburbia. I found this part of the book much less engaging and far too detailed. This section could easily be 100 pages shorter without detracting from the book, and I admit I struggled to work up the enthusiasm to finish it.
Having said that, it is, without a doubt, a beautifully written book based on some unique ideas and with some important messages. It is painful, warm, clever and witty, and the voice of Harrison Sheperd is mature and filled with emotion. His relationship with his stenographer Violet Brown is touching and sweet, and the character in herself is utterly unique and sometimes hilarious.
on 26 April 2015
I had heard several of my friends and colleagues not enjoying this book, so I came to it with trepidation. But I really enjoyed it. I liked the transition from writing as a boy in the third person to the more adult writing as a man as William H Shepherd grows up. I enjoyed reading of the life of Rivera and Khalo and Trotsky and found the interweaving of fact and fiction entertaining. Some have commented that it ws difficult to get to grips with the character of Shepherd; he appeared ephemeral; but I thought he was such a self effacing chap that there would not be an awful lot of him to get hold of. The McCarthy communist pursuing period was also interesting to read about; Barbara Kingsolver's writing shows how words acna make anythnig seem like something else.
I like Barabara Kingsolver and have enjoyed all her books.
on 21 October 2011
A book that deals with resilience and chance, inequality and the effects of changes in politics. A history lesson in the journey of an young boy, who took the chances offered him and made good only to be persecuted for his success by, ironically, a political movement. A very good read.
on 30 August 2010
Now this is what a call a good read; a beautifully structured slow burner with a faboulously controlled mounting of tension and a satisfying ending. The characters were engaging and Kingsolver skillfully builds her fiction around the historical reality of the 1930s and '40s, even bringing a young Richard Nixon in for a walk-on part.
This book has depth and beauty, with recurring themes and images which are subtle but effective.
I condemn the reviewers here who have rated it low without even having the stamina to finish the book first.
It is not a lightweight, but it lifts, soars and flies if you give it a chance.
on 2 April 2012
How does an author manage to portray Trotsky, Rivera and Kahlo as rather uninteresting? The first 300 pages needed more editing, as the plot plods along at a funereal pace. Once Shepherd moves back to the States, the story really takes off beautifully. I rarely persevere with a book I'm not enjoying much past 100 pages or so. I can't say what kept me reading on, but I'm glad I did. The tragic ending is wonderfully realised - the vile persecution of so many by the HUAC hearings is a shameful episode in American recent history, and the slow awakening of Harrison Shepherd as well as his relationship with his secretary are very well done.
`In the beginning were the howlers. In the first hour of dawn they begin their maroon-throated bellows, just as the hem of the sky begins to whiten.'
The novel opens in Isla Pixol, Mexico, in 1929. `The boy and his mother' have moved there on his mother's promise that they will be living a storybook life - but we are told that the story book is the Prisoner of Zenda, not a happy story.
The opening chapter is fascinating. As a reader I relaxed; the narrative is in the hands of a master storyteller. And then? After just one chapter there is the archivist's note. Harrison William Shepherd left just these pages as the start of his memoir. The rest of the narrative will be pieced together by `VB' from diaries and letters.
Of course Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite writers, does this well. This novel is always engrossing and well written. The Poisonwood Bible is Kingsolver's masterpiece; after ten years here is a novel on the same grand scale but unfortunately not as successful. Its subject matter covers Frieda Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera `The Painter', the death of Leon Trotsky, the McCarthy era in `50s USA. Oh yes, and the writer is only thirty or so when he dies after being dear friend of one, apprentice to another, secretary to the third. A bit much.
Look, it's Barbara Kingsolver, so of course you should read it and you will enjoy it.. but I can't help feeling that there is more than one novel here. Structurally, the parts that are woven together from old newspapers, journals etc, real and imagined are ok and this is a gripping read - so much better than most novels you will be seeing this year. But this isn't the Barbara Kingsolver I have adored since The Bean Trees and have been in awe of since The Poisonwood Bible. I was engrossed and found myself thinking about the novel a great deal when I wasn't actually reading it despite its structural flaws. I read it in a concentrated way so perhaps these were more apparent. I then waited about three weeks before writing this review because I just didn't want to admit that this isn't the masterpiece I hoped we were going to get. And sadly, I think this would have been a better book with less. The subject matter is fascinating but after the opening Harrison William Shepherd fails to convince as a character.
The title is La Lacuna, the gap. This book, despite many delights, doesn't quite fill it.
"You have to get right into the action, readers are impatient." Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver should have heeded the advice of her "hero", the author Harrison Shepherd. The first couple of hundred pages were heavy going, being mainly in the form of the diary written largely in Mexico by the teenage Harrison, rambling entries in an often pretentious style with stilted conversations and unengaging characters, not least the waspish woman who turned out to be the painter Frida Kahlo- it was hard to believe she was only about five years older than Harrison. I realised later that the style had a point as he was meant to be developing his voice as a writer. Also, the relevance of the initially tedious interruptions of the "Archivist's Notes" made sense in due course. The odd witty comment or well-observed scene made the effort of reading worthwhile, such as the vivid account (back in America) of bystanders caught up in an over-zealous attack , as government troops used tear gas and brute force to quell demonstrating soldiers with a legitimate grievance over pay. However, too much hung on the reputation of "The Poisonwood Bible" to keep me reading.
The plot picked up pace when Trotsky appeared on the scene, but the book really began to absorb me on Harrison's return to the States, as a guilt-ridden young man who hadn't managed to save Trotsky from the icepick, inspired to write novels by Frida. Kingsolver's descriptions of small-town life in the Mid-West rang truer for me than those of the painter Rivera's household in Mexico. However, perhaps the writing had found its rhythm because the subsequent return visits to Mexico with Harrison's assistant Violet Brown (and her spendlid dry wit - "Even a feather dust will lay an egg in April") also seemed more alive.
I was very impressed by the build up of tension as Harrison inadvertently but inexorably attracted the malign attention of the Committee of Un-American Activities, culminating in a excellent trial scene, written like a play - out-crucibling "The Crucible". The final section tied up the ends neatly, and returned full circle to show the relevance of some of the earlier passages, such as Harrison's discovery of his first "lacuna"- the hole in the cliff exposed only at low tide. I liked the final note of optimism to relieve the initial apparent darkness of the ending. The author succeeded in making us grow to care about Harrison.
Unlike, "Poisonwood", which tails off and loses focus after a brilliant first part, this book has an excellent second half, but a beginning which could have done with more hints of the promise to come. A shorter first part with a sharper focus would have made a more effective novel overall. I could have done with a glossary of Mexican terms, a brief history and biography of the historical characters, for quick reference.
It was an interesting approach to make "an ordinary man" the vehicle for an exploration of the abuse of power, and the similarities in this respect between apparently very different regimes, be they ancient Mexico, the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the States when prey to McCarthyism. In the process, the "celebrities", Frida and her husband, were perhaps unduly blurred, although Trotsky was portrayed as a more rounded and sympathetic character. I am not sure that Kingsolver has revealed any great truths or insights, but she has the power to remind and outrage us once again over the way men can misuse ideologies to persecute each other.