02. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

lacunaWhere I read it: sitting up in bed late at night, trying to make myself tired enough to go to sleep.

Part of the Women’s Prize project that I’ve set myself, as well as one of my 20 Books of Summer, The Lacuna was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel for a decade when it was published in 2009; it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010. It positions itself as the biography of a mid-century Mexican-American novelist, Harrison Shepherd, curated from his extensive diaries and letters (with some gaps filled in) by his former secretary and best friend, Violet Brown. Shepherd is mostly raised in Mexico, and spends his early adulthood as cook and secretary in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; when Trotsky comes to stay with them, Shepherd becomes his employee too, developing a personal history which will have repercussions in the paranoid Communist-hunting climate of 1950s America.

The good things: It’s about all of Shepherd’s life, not just the time he spends with Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky. He’s not made into a Forrest Gump character. For one thing, he’s not an innocent joe (read: blank canvas) touched by history; he has his own background and childhood, which shape him profoundly, even before he gets to the artists. His mother is simultaneously a product of her time and an individual, her choices scarring little Shepherd even while he develops a sort of affectionate disdain for her. The same is true of Frida, Diego and Lev (as he comes to know them): they’re fleshed-out people, not just the giants history knows them as. The descriptions of Mexico–its geography, food, dances, people, politics–are vivid and almost tangible. Kingsolver introduces Shepherd’s homosexuality subtly, and starts early: he’s only nine or ten when he starts noticing their cook, which is exactly right, I think, for the first inklings of sexuality. (So often novels seem to portray sexuality as something that only happens once you turn thirteen. Mais non.) And the horror of the 1950s Communist witch hunts is made manifest; it’s so easy to forget that it really affected people, changed their entire lives.

Less good things: It’s so long. I get that some of this is necessary; it is, after all, someone’s whole life, relatively short though it was. And now that I think of it, none of the book seems random or not meant to be there. There’s just a lot of it. It’s like looking back at a binge-watched Netflix series; when you remember something that happened in episode 2, it seems like an awfully long way away, even if it’s relevant to what’s happening in episode 12. More importantly, a reviewer when it was originally published accused Kingsolver of being morally heavy-handed in the later sections, and I think they were right. That’s the risk that you take, of course, as a political novelist, or a moral one, which I think Kingsolver is. She uses fiction to prod at the conscience, showing us the consequences of jingoism and judgement in one person’s life. That’s no bad thing to be doing as a writer; it’s just difficult to do it in a way that doesn’t make you seem to be shouting.

I’ve liked Kingsolver’s work for a long time–I read The Bean Trees and her essay collection Small Wonder in high school, and The Poisonwood Bible earlier this year. I’d like to read Prodigal Summer next; it’s set in the Appalachia of my childhood, and The Lacuna has given me every reason to keep trusting her writing.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (London: Faber, 2009)

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12 thoughts on “02. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. I also felt that The Lacuna was a bit of a slog, but I do especially struggle with diary format. I loved Prodigal Summer and her more recent Flight Behaviour, which picks up on similar themes, although they can’t completely escape the accusation of being morally heavy-handed.

    • Mm, yes – I suspect I’m much happier to read that moral stuff because I’m on the same political page as she is! It’s still fairly blatant, though. The diary format, interestingly, didn’t bother me so much in The Lacuna because of the way it comes and goes (and because of how Shepherd persistently erases himself, his own presence and reactions.)

      • Yes, the transcription of the HUAC meeting did have me raising an eyebrow… partly because Shepherd’s responses didn’t seem altogether in character! She tells us he’s a coward, so why give him such wittily rebellious answers in the hearing?

  2. Loved The Poisonwood Bible – read it when it first came out and still remember parts of it, particularly the child that never learnt to crawl – but her other books haven’t appealed as much, not sure why.

    • They certainly have a different feel. I suspect that their settings (mostly in America, mostly contemporary) have something to do with it. And there’s a political message to them that The Poisonwood Bible lacks – not that it’s apolitical, but it’s harder to see it as having a direct application to our current political climate. (Unless, like me, you take the history of the Congo as a solid reason to be nauseated by, and mistrustful of, almost all American government “involvement” overseas.)

  3. I have The Lacuna, but wasn’t aware that it had won the women’s prize for fiction. Huh. I guess I should read it one of these days. 🙂 I did love The Poisonwood Bible and Animal Vegetable Miracle. AVM is another one that people have felt is heavy-handed, but it didn’t really bother me as I loved the message and the whole experiment she was trying out.

    So, for example (on the literary scavenger hunt idea), one of your projects is reading the women’s prize winners. You could come up with a ‘tag’ with a list of criteria only for books written by women. I would be happy to do that one, as well. 🙂
    (Just an example, as maybe the reason you don’t see the point is because the scavenger hunt idea doesn’t really appeal to you.)

    • Good point! I think also that what marketing types would call “the branding” is a big part of my hesitation, since “scavenger hunt” makes it all seem like a jolly game (and I am, of course, Vairy Serious All the Time). But I take your point – well made. (You might really like The Lacuna, too; it’s very immersive.)

      • I used “scavenger hunt” for that very reason. 😉
        For some reason, since reading your review, The Lacuna keeps catching my eye. I’m trying to tell it I have no time for it right now!

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