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The Lacuna: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Kingsolver's ambitious new novel, her first in nine years (after the The Poisonwood Bible), focuses on Harrison William Shepherd, the product of a divorced American father and a Mexican mother. After getting kicked out of his American military academy, Harrison spends his formative years in Mexico in the 1930s in the household of Diego Rivera; his wife, Frida Kahlo; and their houseguest, Leon Trotsky, who is hiding from Soviet assassins. After Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison returns to the U.S., settling down in Asheville, N.C., where he becomes an author of historical potboilers (e.g., Vassals of Majesty) and is later investigated as a possible subversive. Narrated in the form of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, the novel takes a while to get going, but once it does, it achieves a rare dramatic power that reaches its emotional peak when Harrison wittily and eloquently defends himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee (on the panel is a young Dick Nixon). Employed by the American imagination, is how one character describes Harrison, a term that could apply equally to Kingsolver as she masterfully resurrects a dark period in American history with the assured hand of a true literary artist. (Nov.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
The Lacuna contains two very distinct parts. One features a vibrant Mexican landscape with the equally colorful personalities of Rivera, Kahlo, and Trotsky. The other centers more on Harrison's reclusive existence in small-town America and his battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite the prodigious research that both parts exhibit, critics clearly preferred the former, marveling at Kingsolver's lyrical passages and her expert recreation of 1930s Mexico. A few reviewers also noted instances of sermonizing and inaccurate history. However, the novel's compelling, engrossing story certainly outweighed these minor complaints, and in the end, Kingsolver has created a convincing "tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost past recognition" (New York Times Book Review).
Top customer reviews
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When years ago I read The Poisonwood Bible, I was flummoxed by its power and beauty. It was clear to me that Barbara Kingsolver possessed a fierce talent not just as a storyteller but also as a wordsmith and a reporter. Her vivid prose brought into high relief the tragic reality of life in the 1960s in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much later I read (and reviewed) Kingsolver’s recent novel, Flight Behavior, a meditation on the impact of climate change that underlies a tale of life and love in the author’s native Appalachia. Though less compelling than Poisonwood, Flight Behavior was brilliant in its own way.
All of which is why I was so taken aback when I had difficulty getting into The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s intensely political historical novel of the Mexican Revolution, the Depression in the US, and the anti-Communist frenzy following World War II. On my first try, I set the book aside, finding its open chapters confusing. Then I tried again, no doubt in a more receptive mood, and I fell in love with the work. I found I simply couldn’t resist the insight Kingsolver brings to her work. Here, for example, is a snippet of dialogue from the mouth of a minor character in the novel, commenting on the Red Scare:
“You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified.”
By the way, how is that so different from the Know-Nothing attitudes holding sway today in the United States Congress?
The protagonist of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, a writer of best-selling historical romance novels set in the empires of the Aztecs and the Maya. Born shortly after World War I, son of a minor American federal official and a desperate Mexican woman who sees him as a mealticket, Shepherd crosses borders to become a first-hand witness to the Bonus Army march and encampment in Washington under Herbert Hoover, the rise to fame of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and the slow, painful unfolding of the Red Scare that seized hold of the United States in the early years of the Cold War.
The Lacuna is crammed with unforgettable portraits of historic figures. Chief among them are Diego Rivera and his on-again, off-again wife, Frida Kahlo, who fairly leap off the page with the passion that drove them to artistic heights. The dialogue between Kahlo and the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is among the most lively and engaging I’ve ever read anywhere (yes, even including Elmore Leonard). Kingsolver’s equally brilliant rendering of the artists’ houseguest, “Leon” (Lev Davidovich) Trotsky, is alone worth the price of this extraordinary book.
Better than anything else I’ve ever read, The Lacuna depicts the desperation of the Depression years, the topsy-turvy uncertainties of the Mexican Revolution, and the insanity of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 50s. That’s a lot to cram between the covers of a single novel.
Getting beyond the subject matter, this book has again taken my heart for the brilliant command of language, the amazing character development and even for the unique method in which the story is told. It is hard to put down so skillfully written a piece and pick up some of the other drivel that passes for writing these days.