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Falls flat after good beginning
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.