‘A country’s inability to look at itself and see anything but perfection’ – The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

When The Lacuna won the Orange Prize earlier this year the news was met with mixed feelings from the critics. One critic described the reaction as ‘respectful disappointment’, with some feeling that Mantel’s Wolf Hall deserved to win and some feeling The Lacuna lacked the strength and coherence of Kingsolver’s earlier novel The Poisonwood Bible. Knowing all this I was a little apprehensive about reading a 670 page novel that might end up disappointing, however respectfully.

The story follows the life of Harrison Shepherd, told through his diary entries, starting with his early life in Mexico in the company of his flighty mother, his eventual move to Washington as a boy and his observations of the Bonus marchers of 1932, before returning to Mexico to live and work in the household of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and, eventually, exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. The Lacuna climaxes in America during the Communist witch hunts of the 40s and 50s. It’s an epic and ambitious undertaking for the author, and no doubt for some readers a little daunting.

Kingsolver’s writing is evocative and at times beautifully descriptive, especially when telling of Shepherd’s early childhood in Mexico – the landscape, people, his surroundings and the evocative smells and tastes of the food he is taught to make by his mother’s cook, and only friend, Leandro. While appreciating all of this up to a point, it was about 150 pages in when I finally started to really enjoy this story. This is when we get to meet Frida, Diego and Trotsky. Then the story starts to take hold. The lonely outsider Shepherd slowly integrates himself into the Kahlo household, first as the head cook and then as secretary. He becomes close to Frida and then to Trotsky, finding him warm and supportive, a father figure. When Trotsky is brutally murdered, Shepherd flees to America and proceeds to live a quiet, almost reclusive, existence plagued with memories of his past. With his sudden unexpected success as a novelist Shepherd gains an unwanted fanbase and his life is put under the spotlight of the media, leading eventually to the dangerous scrutiny of the Committee on Un-American activity. When his past associations with Trotsky come to light he has no option but to flee back to Mexico and his old friends. 

Where the novel succeeds, is in its rich enthusiastic descriptions of real people and real events – the colourful, damaged, compelling Frida, the almost Jesus-like Trotsky – but the fictional characters such as Shepherd’s sometime lover, Tom Cuddy, and his Jewish lawyer, Arthur Gold, are somewhat one dimensional and paled by comparison. One fictional character that is more successful however is Shepherd’s secretary, Mrs Violet Brown, who is described as “small, unadorned, unapologetic”, prudish in appearance and demeanour. She in the end provides Shepherd with unfailing support, friendship and love (albeit of the unspoken kind). In the end it is she that saves Shepherd’s diaries from the bonfire. In the end hers is the character that earns most sympathy.  

After 9/11 Barbara Kingsolver wrote a series of newspaper articles calling for scrutiny of US foreign policy. The backlash she received was unexpected and frightening – magazines and newspapers misquoted her and wrote scathing articles, she received hate mail and feared for her family. From this the The Lacuna was born. She wanted to write a book about a country’s inability to look at itself and see anything but perfection, and its fear of anyone, even mere writers and artists, who question the government and the decisions it makes. This is a big ask for any story, for any novel, which is why I can see Kingsolver felt the need to tell a number of stories spanning a remarkable era in history.

Any Cop?: Some parts of the story worked better than others, some characters work better than others, but overall it is an enjoyable journey and one well worth taking.

Paula O’Connell

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