Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Literary Bite: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Way back in 2009, on my Mama’s first visit to DC, I showed off my oh-so-cultured new city by taking her to a talk by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver (who is best known for The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) was on a book tour to promote her newest novel, The Lacuna.  

Having not read The Lacuna at the time of the talk, I didn’t follow all points of the discussion…but I do remember being very impressed by her research and writing process. I feel like there is this illusion with writers that they sit down and imagine and words magically appear (I’m sure some authors do write like that), but Kingsolver talked about how much she loves research and how much work (research, travel, time, interviews) she put into writing this novel.

The Lacuna is about mostly fictional characters, but centered around real events and people and places. It covers Mexico, Washington, DC, and North Carolina from 1929 to 1951. The main character, Harrison Shepherd, is born to an American father and Mexican mother, and spends his life between the two countries. In Mexico he works as a plaster-mixer, cook, and typist for Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, and later as a secretary for exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky in the Rivera’s home. (Crazy, but totally realistic.) When Trotsky is assassinated, Shepherd flees to America and becomes a successful author of romantic adventure novels until he is investigated by the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee for his ties to Communism.

NPR criticized the novel for its super-passive main character, who is “so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company.” I disagree entirely -- a “lacuna” is a gap, or something that is missing. I felt like Shepherd himself is the lacuna. Shepherd’s character is shown through his interactions with other characters, and through their representations of him.
  • Nevertheless, this rich novel is certainly bigger than its politics. It resurrects several dramatic events of the early 20th century that have fallen out of public consciousness, brings alive the forgotten details of everyday life in the 1940s, and illustrates how attitudes and prejudices are shaped by political opportunism and the rapacious media. But despite this large, colorful canvas, ultimately "The Lacuna" is a tender story about a thoughtful man who just wanted to enjoy that basic American right: the right to be left alone. As he was fond of saying, "The most important part of the story is the piece of it you don't know." (WaPo)

The book started a bit slow, but definitely grew on me. I was very impressed by Kingsolver’s ability to cover so many topics so well – politics and McCarthyism and art and feminism and relationships and families, spanning two countries and 20 years. The Lacuna is definitely worth reading.