Another long review – sorry – but one of the best books I’ve read this year, so consider sticking it out with me. Or, go to the very bottom for my two-sentence review. Many thanks.
Reviewing The Lacuna daunts me. How to capture the enormous world that is this book in a brief (readable) blog post? I have only read three other of her books (liked The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams; not so much The Poisonwood Bible; all pre-blog, unfortunately) but from what I know, this is by far her best. (Her own website calls it her “most accomplished novel”). It is a Big Thing.
I shall take this one step at a time. Plot summary. A young boy named Harrison William Shepherd is born in 1916 to an American father, a bean-counter for the government in Washington, D.C., and a Mexican mother, Salomé. He spends his childhood mostly in Mexico, with a brief interlude at a military school in the US, and ends up working in his teens for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, first as Diego’s plaster mixer, then as a cook and secretary and Frida’s companion. When Lev Trotsky arrives as a political exile from Soviet Russia, he acts as secretary and cook to him, too, following Trotsky when he splits from the Riveras; he is at Trotsky’s side when he is assassinated. Shepherd (who goes by various names depending on who’s talking) never considers himself exactly an ideological follower of the communist cause, but his sympathies are naturally aligned with those of his famous employers, for whom he has great respect.
Following the assassination, he begins a new life in Asheville, North Carolina, becoming a famous author of novels set in ancient Mexico; but the trauma of Lev Trotsky’s bloody demise, Shepherd’s sexual orientation, and his extremely shy and self-effacing demeanor keep him isolated from an American world that feels foreign. He closely follows international politics through the second World War, the United States’ sudden reversal of regard for Stalin, and the Dies Committee (which contacted Trotsky when Shepherd was with him) becoming the House Unamerican Activities Committee – which eventually begins to investigate Shepherd himself. This turn of events shocks our protagonist, who sees himself as an insignificant and apolitical player, but whose new Jewish-New-Yorker lawyer is alarmed at the skeletons he hides in his closet: to the point, an association with the late Trotsky and the still-active Kahlo and Rivera. The Asheville era in Shepherd’s life yields new and likeable characters in the lawyer, Artie Gold, and Shepherd’s secretary-companion, Appalachian native Violet Brown. (I think Kingsolver had fun with these *colorful* names, ha.) The FBI’s investigation of Shepherd threatens to tear down the precariously balanced, agorophobic life that he has so carefully constructed in Asheville; and here I’ll stop. I liked the ending, despite its considerable sadness.
Violet Brown is an important part of the story in terms of format. The story is told almost entirely in Shepherd’s own voice. As presented, he wrote the first chapter of his memoir and then quit; this chapter opens the book, and then we get Mrs. Brown as “archivist” explaining the reversion to Shepherd’s journals starting at age 14. The rest of the book is pulled from these (fictional) journals, with interjections from our archivist here and there, as well as a number of newspaper and magazine articles (Kingsolver notes which are real articles at the beginning of the book for your reference; my impression without checking each one is that most are real) and assorted samples of Shepherd’s correspondence. It is a very interesting format, raising all kinds of questions about voice and the progression of voice. I wondered, upon that first shift from an already-published 30-year-old author’s writing to a 14-year-old’s journal, whether Kingsolver didn’t trust her audience to start off that way? But I ended up feeling that this shifting voice felt very real; I enjoyed it. Violet’s role in Shepherd’s life was ambiguous quite far into the story, which kept me wondering, in a good way.
Another aspect of format I must mention is the audio version I listened to – narrated by Kingsolver herself, and to great effect. I loved her work here; every character had a voice, an accent, a lilt, a manner of speaking, and these were important in a story peopled by Mexicans with various backgrounds, a cross-bordered Mexican-American confused about where he might belong, an Appalachian-hills woman who worked hard for her education, and a New York Jew. Shepherd’s speech cadence as performed by his creator was remarkable and memorable; it increased my enjoyment of this story. The only drawback to the audio format is that I am always driving, or washing dishes, or in the gym, etc., when I’m listening, and therefore failed to mark down for you any number of remarkable lines I would have liked to share.
I was completely drawn into Shepherd and his world. I found Frida Kahlo compelling, which I think is faithful to her real life. The Mexico Kingsolver paints is so real, so filled with sensory stimulation, and in some ways familiar – the foods I eat, the places I’ve visited – which I think always gets a positive reader reaction. And the linguistic nuance of a boy (and man) who speaks both his languages with an accent, who brings Spanish structures into English, was so authentic, I just ate it up. (Like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of my most favorite books ever.) And then the politics – the evocation of such a complex, rapidly changing, schizophrenic period in our history, through the Bolshevik Revolution, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, Hoovervilles, WWII, Roosevelt’s death, HUAC… it was so very dense. I was reminded of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (which is the more recent work), another novel set in real historical events that successfully evoked a vivid time and place; but The Lacuna built a bigger world, was more literary and flowery, and in my opinion was better (sorry, Stephen).
Part of this book’s fascination for me lay in its explanation of the hatred and fear of communism, Communism, and its various permutations and misunderstandings during an era before my birth. Kingsolver’s characters helped me work through some of my questions about this time and this perplexing, unreasonable fear; Shepherd shares my confusion, and the lawyer Artie Gold does a fair job of helping him think it through (as does Violet Brown, for that matter). Coming near on the heels of A Difficult Woman which I loved so much, and which raised so many questions for me, The Lacuna‘s further exploration of the anticommunist era and my reading of it was very timely.
I’m sorry I’ve gone on so long; it’s only out of my enthusiasm for this dense and complex story that brought me so many emotions and questions. In a few words, The Lacuna is beautifully constructed and beautifully written, a story about artists and the power of art, about Frida Kahlo and Lev Trotsky and American anticommunism. I highly recommend it.