Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Missing Piece

The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver

If you loved The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, or any other of Barbara Kingsolver's acclaimed novels, you might be disappointed with the first 100 pages of The Lacuna. Stick with it. This novel is different from anything else Kingsolver has written. The characters are tougher to relate to than Taylor Greer from The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven. It is not the glorious meditation on the natural world that she gives us in Prodigal Summer. The Lacuna is more like a historical novel with a lot of artistic license thrown in. The book is difficult to describe, but it picks up power as it moves along, and the last 100 pages are terribly moving.

Harrison Shepherd is the character at the heart of The Lacuna. Other major characters include Mexican artist Diego Rivera, his wife the painter Frida Kahlo, Communist leader Leon Trotsky and (later in the story) a secretary named Violet Brown. Kingsolver took a risk, in my opinion, but making people who really lived major characters in a fiction book. I kept stopping to look things certain events up to see if they were really based in fact or if Kingsolver was making all of this up. As much as I could tell, the historical stuff was amazingly accurate. Leon Trotsky DID live with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo for a time, and he DID have an adulterous affair with Kahlo. Trotsky WAS assassinated by Stalinist goons in Mexico.

Kingsolver takes these historical events and observes them through the eyes of a young boy who cooks in the house of Rivera and Kahlo - Harrison Shepherd. Harrison is a wonderful character, but he has to be one of the most isolated people I have ever read about. I don't want to spoil the story for those who want to read it, but I will say that Kingsolver really makes us think about how the march of time and the unfolding of significant events between nations affect ordinary people who are just trying to live life and maybe form a few lasting relationships. Even though much of The Lacuna centers around political affairs between the United States, Mexico, and the Soviet Union, there is equal time given to the way that Harrison, with his trusting and apolitical nature, gets caught in the middle of forces and conflicts way beyond his control.

The ostracism that Harrison faces in the post-World War II years, when the United States in on an anti-Communist witch hunt, is hauntingly narrated and truly frightening. The McCarthyites take an already lonely human being and tear apart the few fragile connections that he has made with other people. The one person who remains a friend to Harrison is his stenographer, Violet Brown. In his farewell letter to Violet, Harrison (a gay man who certainly had no romantic interest in her) says that they have had "a great love," that no one has been more important to him than she has. That was when I cried.

One definition of a "lacuna" is a missing piece in a historical record, a hole in a traceable chronology. The word as a title for the book makes sense on a couple of different levels, as the reader will see. The book as a whole, though, is possibly Kingsolver's way of gently saying to us that we rarely (if ever) know the whole story. Best not to judge another until the missing pieces are filled in. And maybe not even then - how do any of us know how we would respond to a situation unless we were in it?

Read this. It may not be as lyrical as some of Kingsolver's other writing, but it is a great story told well. This is her first novel in about 10 years, and it was well worth the wait.

Reverent Reader


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