The novel tells the story of Harrison William Shepherd beginning with his childhood in Mexico during the 1930s. His parents are separated so he lives back and forth between the United States with his father and Mexico with his mother. During his time in Mexico he works as a plaster mixer for the mural artist Diego Rivera then as a cook for both him and his artist wife Frida Kahlo, with whom Shepherd develops a lifelong friendship. While living with and working for them, he also begins working as a secretary for Leon Trotsky who is hiding there, exiled by Stalin.
Later in life, living in Asheville, North Carolina, Shepherd becomes a novelist and is subsequently investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He instructs his secretary, Violet Brown, to burn his papers and returns to Mexico. However, she saves his diaries and letters and it is these papers that form the bulk of the novel. There are gaps, or lacunae, in the story, hence the title.
By Liesl Schillinger
And from Kingsolver's own website:
The Lacuna | 2009
Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.
Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach—the lacuna—between truth and public presumption.
With deeply compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, Barbara Kingsolver has created an unforgettable portrait of the artist—and of art itself. The Lacuna is a rich and daring work of literature, establishing its author as one of the most provocative and important of her time.
“Kingsolver's exploration (through all five senses) of Mexican and American geographies, weather, people, food, cultures, politics, languages and era-bound events—Hoover through World War II, Truman, Nagasaki—is masterful, and a reader receives the great gift of entering not one but several worlds.”
— THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
“The novel is a brilliant mix of truth and fiction, history and imagination … [making] for a compelling and utterly believable read.”
“As in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver perfects the use of multiple points of view ... This is her most ambitious, timely, and powerful novel yet.”
— LIBRARY JOURNAL