Plot Summary: In a story told entirely through diary entries and letters, we meet Harrison William Shepherd, a half-Mexican, half-American boy who grows up with his mother in Mexico. He has no education, but his love of reading and writing nurtures his own inner dialog that leads to his success as a writer. But that's getting ahead of the story. First he passes his adolescence working for some of Mexico's most infamous residents in the 1930s - Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Lev Trotsky. His break with Mexico is abrupt, and Shepherd moves to America where he embarks on a writing career with the assistance of his invaluable stenographer, Mrs. Violet Brown.
I've spent the past two days in close communion with this novel, and it has moved me deeply. It's not often that I abandon popular literature for the big fish, but Barbara Kingsolver is one of the few authors whose writing entertains me in all forms - novels, essays and non-fiction. I suppose I'm like a book groupie, following her whether she's spinning yarns in the Southwest, or matter of factly walking me through slaughter day when her chicken's days are numbered. Make no mistake, her latest effort is Literature with a capital L, and the story is so poignant it could make a stone weep in sympathy. And weep I did. Frequently.
When a novel covers a person's life, from the beginning to the end, it takes on an epic flavor by default. Harrison Shepherd's life could be considered epic even if it was condensed down to a three paragraph obituary. It's an extraordinary tale told during haunting times in both Mexico and the U.S. I regret that I don't know as much as I should about the history before, during, and after World War II, but I will use this novel as a crutch for my shoddy memory. This is history refracted through a miniscule lens; a tiny dot that represents the life of a boy who becomes a man.
It's a scary proposition trying to populate a work of fiction with famous dead people. I don't know if Ms. Kingsolver got it all right, although I don't doubt that her research was extensive, however it doesn't matter. She brought everyone back to life in full color, so bright and blinding it almost hurt my eyes. I will always carry around these portraits of Frida and Trotsky, along with Shepherd and Violet Brown. They are permanently inked onto my imagination.
Barbara Kingsolver has written a book of historical fiction that reads like a Frida Kahlo painting: allegory, poetry, beauty & pain. Kingsolver writes likes a great artist paints.
The story opens in 1929 and ends in 1951. Harrison William Shepherd (a fictional character) born in the US to a US father and a Mexican mother, is a child in Mexico. Since his parents are both disinterested in parenting, he makes his own way in life. First he is a cook/secretary in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, then for Bolshevik/Marxist Revolutionary Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico. After Trotsky is assassinated, Shepherd is encouraged by Kahlo to move to the US where he finally becomes what he was meant to be; an author of historical fiction.
The backbone of the story is the Communist/Worker's Movement in Mexico & the US and Rivera, Kahlo & Trotsky's part in it. They provide the political dialogue for the relationship of US politics and art. Kingsolver imagines what it would have been like living in these households during this turbulent period. The story culminates with Shepherd being called before the US Committee on Un-American Activities. But the story is about so much more than politics and history.
If you are an admirer of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, reading this book will be like contemplating their art. The story mirrors the politics and history portrayed in Rivera's murals and the pain and beauty of Kahlo's paintings.
If you enjoy reading historical fiction, this is a beautifully written example.
Update: 6/10/10 Barbara Kingsolver was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction for "The Lacuna". The Orange prize was started in 1996 to recognize female fiction writers around the world.
It is quite possible that "The Lacuna", Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, surpasses her masterpiece "The Poisonwood Bible" and that is no small feat. Or perhaps surpass isn't the correct word for an author of Kingsolver's talent who can make the unlikeliest of stories and characters come to life. "The Lacuna" manages to weave together some of the early twentieth century's most pivotal events without demeaning them, offering fresh insight into some of the darkest moments of American history through the eyes of a genuine and likeable misfit.
"The Lacuna" is the memoir-of-sorts of Harrison Wiliam Shepherd, an author caught between two very different worlds. As a young boy, his Mexican mother drags him back to her native country as she pursues any wealthy man who is willing to take her on as a mistress. Years later, he is sent to live with his father, a man he does not even know, before returning to Mexico where he finds himself in the employ of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His association with these two famous artists brings him in contact with Trotsky, on exile from Stalinist Russia, who continues Shepherd's odd education in the school of life experiences. When events turn sour in Mexico, Shepherd returns to the United States, fulfilling his dream of becoming a beloved author, only to have to confront his past and the words he has never said during the Red Scare of the 1950s. His story is told in his own words, his diary entries and letters, some too private to lay bare, and by the words of his secretary who takes it upon herself to compile his life's narrative.
The sheer amount of history that Kingsolver is able to plausibly mix into Shepherd's story is incredible, and all of it believable. "The Lacuna" is a beautiful story, one man's search to find a place he can call home and to be accepted and loved for the person that he is. Kingsolver's prose sparkles with the poetry of her descriptions and her uncanny ability to craft intricate narratives that unspool effortlessly in the reader's imagination. "The Lacuna" is unforgettable. Readers will feel that they have lived alongside Shepherd and that he also lived, not only on paper or through words.
on December 25, 2009
I have just finished reading Lacuna. Like all the other books of Barbara Kingsolver I could not put it down. It is not just a novel, or an historical novel, but a wonderful social commentary of our times.
I've read a number of the reviews of Lacuna and I believe that a lot of people are missing the whole point of the book. I am almost as old as Harrison Shepherd would have been had he lived a full long life. I have lived in and observed America, at close hand since the mid 1940's, so have a very vivid understanding of the events that pass by in the second half of the book, and some knowledge of Mexico, to understand the first part.
The second half of the novel, when Harrison was vilified, was exactly what happened in the fifties when fear and mass hysteria ran rampent and the constitution was pushed aside. Hundreds of innocent people were charged with the crime of association with a communist. It could easily have been association with a christian or a republican or anyone who did not believe exactly as those in power believed. This showed the rest of the world the black inside of America. Sadly, so much of what is going on in Washington today is a strange echo of those times. When those in power and in the public eye shouted the loudest lies and untruths and vilified anyone with a different opinion. What else could Lacuna mean? That Harrison lived on? That he was a very ordinary person living in extroadinary times? Think for youself, it is all there.
In the beginning, there were howlers, mother and son joined in terror of the devils stalking from above. With this metaphor, Barbara Kingsolver launches into a novel that's steeped in real historical events -- primarily the Mexican painter Diego Rivera and his mercurial and artistic sometime-wife, Frida Kahlo and the period in the 1930's when they played host to the exiled Lev Trotsky. Central to the narrative is Harrison William Shepherd, an enlightened Forrest Gump character, who seems to always be in the right place at the right time to experience history in its unfolding.
Harrison -- who enters into service as the Rivera/Kahlo cook and secretary -- forges an unlikely friendship with the slightly older Frida that lasts a lifetime. She encourages him to keep a journal, and through these journal entries, the reader uncovers Kingsolver's truth about Trotsky -- how the propaganda and lies cast him in the role of Communist villain and lead to Stalin's ultimate supremacy and eventually, Trotsky's assassination. Harrison's association with Rivera and Kahlo exacts a toll: he quickly goes from becoming a novelist who is respected and admired to becoming abhored virtuallly overnight as the Joe McCarthy era and its excesses spread across America.
The Lacuna is exquisitely written: Kingsolver's sense of place holds an almost magical lyricism where the reader can almost taste the red chalupas and scrambled egg torta with sugar, feel the echoes of the ancient Aztec civilization, smell the fresh rain and see the women in long braids selling vegetables while nearby, the charlatans are selling miracles. The luscious writing brings the 20th century Mexico boldly into life, not unlike one of Diego Rivera's murals.
But make no mistake: Kingsolver's focus is not Harrison or Diego and Frida or Trotsky or even Mexico. It is the lacuna -- the Spanish word meaning space between two objects or in this case, the space that lingers between the truth and the falsity that is perceived as a truth. The "howlers" that begin the novel are not the long-tailed monkeys at all, but those who seek to persecute, including (especially) the press and the Un-American Activities Committee.
Lacuna is very ambitious and it works -- to a point. Kingsolver is intent on creating a story that merges social commentary with fiction, and often errs on the side of the commentary. The dialogue between Harrison and Frida, for example, seemed forced to this reader; Frida came across as much too one-dimensional for such an intriguing painter and figure in history. While any astute citizen realizes that there have been way too many lies and innuendos that comprise our so-called history ("history is written by the winners"), the results are often more nuanced than presented. Because of the distancing device of the journals, we relate to Harrison Shepherd, but never truly inhabit him; he is the vessel through which events are revealed.
For Kingsolver, who is a true social activist, "attention must be paid." Half-way through the novel, she writes: "Write down the story of what happened to us. So when nothing is left but bones and scraps of clothes, someone will know where we went." That is precisely what she does in Lacuna as she details one of our most colorful collective journeys.
Barbara Kingsolver's "Pigs in Heaven" endures as one of my all-time favorite novels, I re-read it every few years and I rejoice in its wonderfulness all over again. So I jumped at the chance to review Kingsolver's newest novel "The Lacuna" which is a bildungsroman novel following the strange life of Harrison Shepherd. Only child of a wayward divorced mom, Harry is "half Mexican and half gringo" an ever-foreign identity that serves him both as an advantage and disadvantage during his life.
Shepherd's story is told via diary and journal entries, letters, clippings and the narration of Violet Brown, Shepherd's faithful secretary. This format works extremely well to propel the story. The first half of the novel is set primarily in Mexico during the 1930s and this historical backdrop of the time was vivid and interesting...I confess that I went to the internet several times to learn more about the Bonus Army, Trotsky and to look at the art work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The second half (and my favorite half) is set in the US in during the 1940s where Shepherd lands after his flight from Mexico. It is in this second half that the story comes together. Shepherd writes bestselling novels about Mexican history (Cortes, the Maya the Aztecs) and by setting his novels in a foreign country and the distant past, Shepherd can veil his anti-Stalin, anti-war, anti-nuke leanings. In this half of the novel, with the back-drop of the Red Scare and "anticommunism", Kingsolver is able to likewise veil her own political point of view about present-day US politics; the "Socialism Scare", erosion of Constitutional rights, an unreliable press and hyperbole of extremists on all sides isn't new to American politics. We have seen this all before.
Kingsolver can always be counted on to create compelling characters that the reader comes to care deeply about and Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown are two such characters.
I adore Barbara Kingsolver; Poisonwood Bible was one of the great reading experiences of my life. I even read her book about vegetables, and I hate vegetables! Yes, she's always had a political agenda, but in the past, this agenda was complemented by a great sense of story and a sly humor. In this book, both are absent, and you're just left with all the worst parts of her writing: the politics, the tendency to lecture, and the show-offy "I know more than anyone else" kind of aesthetic. Here, she appears to be more concerned with using literary tricks to prove her thesis than she is in telling a story. She says she wanted to write about a loss of identity, so she creates a narrator who is so disconnected from himself that he cannot even acknowledge his own existence in his journal. It plays like a gimmick: "watch me spend 280 pages writing the journal of a character who will never say "I"! It made the story so frustrating to read. She repeats the "lacuna" idea throughout - that the most important part of any story is the part you don't know - but there is no narrative payoff. The "missing part" is easy to guess and not that interesting. Obviously others disagree with me, and I respect that. But for what it's worth, here is one opposing view.
on October 16, 2010
There have been so many reviews of "The Lacuna" that it would be wasted effort for me to spend any time recounting the plot. I'll just go down the list of my own impressions of the book:
1. While I understand some readers' frustration with the passivity of Harrison Shepherd, I found him a lovable character. Barbara Kingsolver has fashioned him as a born observer, not a man of action, and I found him thoroughly engaging and sympathetic. Kingsolver may have made him a little too eloquent a writer as a young teenager in Isla Pixol, but his journals there are entertaining nevertheless. I did, however, have some trouble with the agoraphobia Harrison develops later in the book; it struck me as mostly a construct for Kingsolver to narrow the focus of the book to Harrison and Violet Brown, all the better to present them as The Only Two Righteous People in America. The episodic structure of the book, as presented in Harrison's incomplete, gap-filled journals, also gives Kingsolver an excuse to drop certain characters and tell us nothing of their fates.
2. Generally, because of the factors noted above and for other reasons, I found the portions of the book set in Mexico more vivid than those set in the U.S. Of course, when you have Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Trotsky as lead characters, it's hard to make things dull, and Kingsolver brings them all brilliantly to life. You can open the Mexican section to any page and find at random a gorgeous piece of writing, such as this example on page 202 of the hardcover edition: "The bones of the ancient city radiated heat, but the little river ran a cool thread through its belly. A lizard moved in the grass of the bank, running into the shade of a ledge, coming to rest near a stone that seemed rounded and glossy, even in shadow."
3. Obviously, "The Lacuna" is a novel that wears its politics on its sleeve. Glenn Beck, if he deigned to pay attention to literary fiction, undoubtedly would rank Barbara Kingsolver with Woodrow Wilson as an enemy of America. But, as Beck and so many others are demonstrating ad nauseam, the spirits of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy are still very much alive. I recommend "The Lacuna" for its lovable lead character, its frequent passages of bravura writing, and its stand for sanity, reason, kindness and courage against craziness, stupidity, cruelty and cowardice.
And I am still thinking about the entire book and the political message that Kingsolver is trying to state through this novel. First of all, I must confess that I almost put the book down because it was just too slow for me. It was taking me forever to get involved with the book ... not sure if it was because I got hit by the flu season (which lasted a month and a half in this house) and then the holidays came upon us, so there was no time to read a novel of this depth or what it was. Just yesterday, I picked it up again and was hooked immediately until the last page had been turned.
I honestly didn't know what to expect out of this novel. To be frank, the blurb just wasn't all that appealing. Who really wants to read about a kid who basically raised himself and lived in the household of Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kablo and later on became the secretary of a Russian Revolutionary, Leo Trotsky, then became a writer himself? It just didn't sound that appealing to me for the simple reason that I have never been that interested in that part of history. But since it was Barbara writing this book, I just had to read it.
And I am glad that I did. "Poisonwood Bible" is not my favorite of her books but this one is definitely better and better written as well. I can visualize Mexico and I can visualize the congressional hearing against Harrison William Shepherd. I can visualize it all ... and mourn the loss of Shepherd's friend when he was killed by Stalin's assassin. The first half of the book was very slow moving for me especially when Shepherd's mother kept flitting from place to place and dragging her poor kid with her. It does not make for distracted reading ... well, this entire novel requires you to set some time apart to read it since it is a thoughtful piece of literature.
And this is literature. It is not the fluff piece of writing that dominates today's market. This is the stuff that classics are made of, full of richly drawn and detailed characters set in places and time of history in the making. Kingsolver combines the humanness of heroes one might have read about in dusty history books and brought them alive. I know next to nothing about Frida and Diego let alone Leo ... but after reading this book, I immediately went online to read more about them. I had no interest in them before but thanks to Kingsolver, I am now interested. She brought them to life for me.
And that is one of the best things an author can ever do for her readers.
Once I picked up this latest Barbara Kinsolver novel I just couldn't put it down. Simply put, it's a great story. But it's much more than that. It's a luscious political and social interpretation of the period of the 1930s through the 1950s in both Mexico and the United States. Historical facts are combined with imagination to construct the worldview of the main character, Harrison W. Shepard, who we first meet as a 12-year old boy whose Mexican mother has left his American father and brought to Mexico. Here he learns to dive and learns about the lacuna, an underwater cave that might or not have an exit.
The boy grows up in Mexico and winds up as a cook in the home of the painter Diego Rivera and his colorfully outrageous wife, Frida Kahlo. Always, the boy keeps a journal, recording the world through his eyes, including the years that the communist leader Lev Trotsky, who had to flee Russia as his life was in danger from his rival Joseph Stalin, was welcomed and sheltered by this non-conventional couple. Swept up in the political intrigue of the time, the boy has to flee to America but he is so immersed in his Mexican world that he writes novels about Mexico's Aztec past and enjoys success as a writer. The reader sees the world through his eyes - the war, the atomic bomb, and, especially, the witch hunts of the 1950s. His secretary, an older woman originally from the mountains of North Carolina, becomes his helpmate. She stands by him as his past makes him a target for the House Un-American committee.
Throughout the book there are excerpts from real newspaper articles as well as the fictional ones used to move the story forward. Each character is deeply developed. I felt I knew each one of them personally, including their imperfections and humanity. I learned more about Mexico in this novel than I ever learned in school. And I felt real emotion as the book spun to its inevitable conclusion.
Yes. I LOVED this book. I give my highest recommendation. Don't miss it.