Book Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

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The Lacuna is another book that won a spot in my suitcase headed for the beach the past two weeks. How can you go wrong with Barbara Kingsolver, and The Lacuna did not disappoint. I felt like this book is probably the most literary of Kingsolver’s novels that I’ve read. It’s interesting that as I think about what I mean by “literary” it seems a kind of synonym for “less accessible.” But in The Lacuna, Kingsolver departs somewhat from traditional narrative form in a way she hasn’t in her other novels that I’ve read.

The Lacuna is a story about Harrison William Shepherd, a man whose life spans the first half of the twentieth century and two countries, the United States and Mexico. Shepherd’s mother is Mexican and his father a white American. He grows up on a small island in Mexico and then in Mexico City, where he falls in with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and eventually works as a kind of secretary for Leon Trotsky and his wife. When Shepherd moves back to the United States, he settles in Asheville, North Carolina and becomes a famous author, writing popular novels about ancient Mexican civilizations.

The story of Shepherd’s life is told through a combination of diaries he kept throughout his life, the beginning of a memoir about his life he never finished, newspaper articles and editorial notes by his friend and secretary, Violet Brown. There are intentional holes in this narrative, holes all throughout the book. One of the diaries Shepherd kept is missing, so there’s a gap in the story of his life. In this novel, the things you don’t know about people are often the most important. There are holes in the form of mysterious caves through which people may disappear. Hence, lacuna.

I love Kingsolver, and love the way she plays with this idea of the lacuna throughout this book. In its form, this is her least traditional novel, and yet, because it is Kingsolver, it is still infinitely accessible (especially compared to something like, say, The Sea, the Sea). There’s a compelling story here to follow, and because it is Kingsolver, many fascinating things to learn along the way. Maybe because she also writes essays, I always find that her books satisfy both my need for a good story, and my need to learn a little something interesting about the world. In this novel, we get to know Rivera and Kahlo, Trotsky and his wife, a great deal about ancient Mexican civilizations, and at the end, what it might have been like to have lived through McCarthyism as a gay writer who once worked for known and quite famous Communists in Mexico.

This last part of the book is especially compelling and interesting to me. Shepherd gets dropped by his publisher, labeled a Communist and subversive, in many ways because of his refusal to engage the public. He gets in trouble in part because of his past, but also because of his refusal to say things, the holes he leaves in the public’s imagination of him. Another lacuna.

Shepherd’s novels are about contemporary and sometimes controversial issues, but they’re disguised because of their settings in ancient Mexico. So in his second novel, he explores the perils of nuclear warfare, but through the metaphor of a magical spear given to an Aztec warrior by the gods. Given this aspect of the story, I’m wondering why Kingsolver decided to tackle McCarthyism at this particular moment. Not too long ago, I read Always, Julia, a collection of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, many of them written during the height of McCarthyism. What comes across in both of these accounts is the sense of disbelief. How could these things really be happening in America? And yet, they did.

The last part of the book centering on Shepherd’s encounter with McCarthyism is I feel, the best part of the book, in that Kingsolver vividly conveys how it felt to be trapped within the cogs of that machine. In Kingsolver’s novel, a Jewish entertainment lawyer is the only one who is really able to see clearly where McCarthy’s activities will lead, and there’s no accident there. When a whole nation has attempted to wipe your people off the face of the planet, no level of evil is surprising afterwards. McCarthyism was driven by fear and a slow-boiling hysteria. I love Kingsolver as a novelist also because she’s not afraid to tap her readers gently on the shoulder (or some would say, scream in their faces) about things she thinks are important. In The Lacuna, she seems to be warning us about fear and the things we don’t know until it’s too late.

For all these reasons, The Lacuna is definitely worth a read. It’s not my favorite Kingsolver novel by far. Because of the particular narrative form, I feel there’s a distance between you as a reader and the main character, Shepherd, that isn’t there in Kingsolver’s other novels. I don’t feel as attached to Shepherd at the end of the novel as I do to Taylor in The Bean Trees or Lusa in Prodigal Summer. Throughout the novel I felt just that tiniest bit of frustration at what I didn’t know about Shepherd, and the way in which I felt like I was being pushed away. It’s interesting and I think it fits with what Kingsolver was trying to do, but in the end, it meant that this novel didn’t really move me or engage me in the way some of Kingsolver’s other novels have.  The distance between me as a reader and Shepherd’s life made it just that much harder to connect my own life to the novel.

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Comments

  1. Another really thoughtful review, Robyn. Unlike you, I think The Lacuna is tied with The Poisonwood Bible for my favorite Kingsolver novel, and possibly for some of the same reasons it's not your favorite. Though I generally don't like feeling that I'm being kept at arm's length from the narrator, I think that distance, so integral to the character, is what makes this book so successful. Though I'm not sure I would have ever thought to put it that way if I hadn't read your review. 🙂

  2. Emily, I definitely thought it was a very interesting approach, and certainly a change from other novels. I just felt at times like Shepherd was hiding from you as a character, which I think is very much what I was supposed to feel, but something I didn't enjoy as much. Glad you enjoyed the review.

  3. I have a special place for The Lacuna because it was the first book I ever reviewed for The Blue Bookcase. I think I'm going to agree with Emily here- it's tied with Poisonwood Bible, though I do also love The Bean Trees.
    I know what you mean about the lacunas making Shepherd seem distant, but I liked that about him. He was a private, reserved person, so I thought it fitting that even we readers didn't get to know him as intimately as we might like.
    Excellent review, Robyn, as always!

  4. Christina, thanks. I can see where your first review for The Blue Bookcase would have some sentimental value. I agree, the way Kingsolver structures the story works perfectly with the character. And she handles that narrative structure very nicely. I just like being closer to the character, I guess.

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