January 06, 2015

Review of The Lacuna

The LacunaThe Lacuna is a 2009 novel by Barbara Kingsolver. It is Kingsolver's sixth novel, and won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.


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.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Artists and Idols

By Liesl SchillingerLeaving his mother to her Mme. Bovary messes, Shepherd parlays his domestic skills into a job mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals (“It’s like making dough for pan dulce”) and joins the Rivera household as cook and typist for Rivera, his artist wife, Frida Kahlo, and later for their guest, the exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky. In this incendiary, revolutionary household, Shepherd keeps mum and lets louder egos roar, just as he did on Isla Pixol. Baking bread by day, he records the daily dramas of this entourage by night, along with a draft of his first novel, an epic of the Aztec empire. But in 1940, when Trotsky is assassinated, Shepherd leaves Mexico, spooked by the virulent press that denounces his employers and their murdered ward “like the howlers on Isla Pixol.” At the age of 24, he returns to the United States and settles in Asheville, N.C. There he becomes a reclusive, gentlemanly author of swashbuckling Mexican historical novels (“Vassals of Majesty,” “Pilgrims of Chapultepec”) until the ungentlemanly House Un-American Activities Committee drags him into the spotlight, rewriting his character in crude strokes for the public stage.And:“The Lacuna” can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices. But the fuller value of Kingsolver’s novel lies in its call to conscience and connection. She has mined Shepherd’s richly imagined history to create a tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost past recognition. Yet it’s a tableau vivant whose story line resonates in the present day, albeit with different players. Through Shepherd’s resurrected notebooks, Kingsolver gives voice to truths whose teller could express them only in silence.Review: 'The Lacuna' by Barbara Kingsolver

And from Kingsolver's own website:

The Lacuna | 2009In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

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 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.”

About The LacunaI spent so much time thinking about Harrison Shepherd’s hard-boiled Aztec novels, I even designed their dust-jackets in my head. Immediately behind my desk is a shelf where I keep my dictionaries, the thesaurus, and the reference books I’m using most during a given project. A couple of times without really thinking I turned around to reach for Harrison Shepherd’s Vassals of Majesty or Pilgrims of Chapultepec. And then laughed at myself, out loud.And:I traveled to all the settings, on both sides of the border: Washington, D.C., Asheville, North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway, on this side. On the other, I hiked through Mexican coastal jungles, hung out in villages, went to see a brujo, visited Mexico City’s archaeological and art museums, the preserved homes of Rivera and Kahlo and the Trotskys, and their personal archives. I climbed the pyramids at Teotihuacán. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico over the past thirty years, living near the border in Arizona for most of that time, so I drew on the past too, digging out old notebooks from assignments in the Yucatan and elsewhere. I only set scenes in places where I’ve been myself. When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.Comment:  As in her first three books--The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, and Animal Dreams--Kingsolver deals with Native and Hispanic themes in The Lacuna. I'd rank The Lacuna with Pigs in Heaven as two of the best Native-themed books ever, even though Kingsolver isn't Native. Rob's rating: 9.0 of 10.

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