Mrs. Kingsolver has done it again! I don’t even know how to begin to describe this novel for it is so elaborately written and tells a vast story. I will admit, as often happens when reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, I found it a bit laborious to get through the first 50 or so pages of The Lacuna. But once I read my way further into the stuff of the book, I was completely hooked.
The story begins in 1930s Mexico. A young Harrison Shepherd and his mother take up residence with an oil magnate living in Mexico whom the latter hopes to marry. Given the variety of circumstances that Harrison’s mother finds repulsive and fearsome, she off-handedly tells her son to write down everything that happens to them in Mexico for posterity’s sake. From then on out, Kingsolver provides us with Harrison’s journals and correspondence to track his story.
Under the tutelage of Leandro, the resident cook in Shepherd’s potential father-in-law’s home, Harrison learns the basics of authentic Mexican cuisine. These skills he applies to plaster preparation when he encounters a formidable Diego Rivera, attempting to complete a two-story mural with sub-par assistance. Shepherd corrects the hired helps’ hopeless ways, making quite an impression upon the famous painter. From there, Kingsolver draws a historic and remarkable life story for Shepherd. The boy works in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, foments a unique relationship with the celebrated female painter, and inadvertently becomes immersed in international political conflicts when exiled Marxist and Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky takes up residence amongst Diego and Frida.
Though he considers himself rather apolitical, Harrison can’t help but find himself in the midst of great political upheaval, especially once he settles in Asheville, North Carolina as an accomplished novelist, only to fall under suspicion of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His true passions lie in Mexican history, as is evidenced by the content of his compelling and widely-read novels. But Harrison’s life story is such that his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, finds it impossible for the novelist to avoid writing a memoir – especially given his extensive collection of personal journals which would make such a task immensely less daunting.
The Lacuna is by no means an easy read and I imagine that, were I to revisit this book in a month or two, I would find thousands of new things to take away from it. Part of the reason I find this novel so compelling is the mere density and complexity of it – the way in which history is so seamlessly woven throughout, how Harrison’s past experiences in place and time craftily dovetail with the present moment, the grand beauty of the language that only further heighten Kingsolver’s storytelling.
And a great part of it’s charm is the mystery inherit in the story. As Shepherd repeatedly says “The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” Kingsolver proves this to be true by offering only the subtlest of hints at certain important pieces of the grand puzzle of Shepherd’s life. She omits a select few of Harrison’s journals and purposefully conceals periods in his life that prove consequential in his future – all in a captivating effort to demonstrate Harrison’s point that the omissions are often the most crucial points of a story.
Complete with historical, social, and political commentary, The Lacuna is undoubtedly one of the most well-crafted and gripping books I’ve picked up in a while. If nothing else, readers can appreciate this novel for the sheer talent required to create something at turns so challenging, entertaining, engaging, and astonishing. This is definitely another one to add to Kingsolver’s ever-growing list of accomplishments!
And here are a few tidbits from the novel to give you a little taste of what you can expect from this one.
“Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?”
“This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into infinite circulations of currency, separate, invisible, and untraceable. That particular handful of coins had no special meaning together, it seems, except to pay a particular price. It might remain real, if someone had written everything in a notebook.”
“You are a writer, employed by the American imagination.”
“You’ve never seen anything as dramatic as these American trees, dying their thousand deaths. The giant beech next door intends to shiver off every hair of its pelt. The world strips and goes naked, the full year of arboreal effort piling on the sidewalks in flat, damp strata. The earth smells of smoke and rainstorms, calling everything to come back, like down, submit to a quiet, moldy return to the cradle of origins. This is how we celebrate the Day of the Dead in America: by turning up our collars against the scent of earthworms calling us home.”