Tag Archives: Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna

31 Aug

A lacuna is a gap in knowledge, an open space, in history and literary theory. Barbara Kingsolver takes advantage of this definition by leaving much for the reader to figure out in this exquisite book about love, politics, fear and loss.

Harrison Shepherd is a shy young boy, dragged to Mexico from his home in the United States by his Mexican flapper mother (this is the 1920 after all). She flits from man to man, following the money she so desperately needs.  Harrison needs to adapt to his new surroundings and language, but he never quite finds a place to fit in – except when swimming in the sea.

Harrison is again moved to Mexico City and, forced to find an income, fate leads him to Diego Rivera as he is painting his mural in the National Palace. From being a plaster mixer, Harrison finds his life irretrievably united with that of Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo and exiled Communist figure, Leon Trotsky.

This epic novel stands out as it is not Harrison Shepherd himself who is a revolutionary, a dreamer or martyr, but his life is so interwoven with the politics of his time that he is swept up and cannot lead the simple life he craves. 

From revolutionary Mexico in the 1920s to the Red fearing USA post-World War 2, The Lacuna involves a side of history which is ugly and often left undiscussed . This is not only America’s hypocrisy and fear of Communism and all it entails, but also the profound misunderstanding and misinformation that lies at the heart of this fear.

Kingsolver writes The Lacuna through two narrative voices – Harrison Shepherd through his journals and letters and Violet Brown, his assistant who has compiled all his writings. With these dual voices, Kingsolver creates a rounded image of a man who does not understand the importance of his place in history and his deep discomfort with himself. Violet Brown’s voice is strong, believable and sure, whereas Harrison Shepherd’s voice is unsure, nervous and vulnerable. At times the voice created for Shepherd feels too old for his character, too affected, but that is part of his discomfort with himself.

Frida Kahlo is portrayed as a fiery woman, much like she is by Salma Hayek in the film Frida. Her connection with Harrison is special is it is only with him she shares her weaknesses and Harrison his. The relationship between them is integral to the novel and she provides much of the drama.

I loved reading The Lacuna and, at 670 pages, it was easy to read and left me wanting to find out more about this time in US and Mexican History. This is Kingsolver’s best work – it does not have the sentimental ending of The Poisonwood Bible and it is no wonder she has taken so long to write it. One has to wonder whether she had similar arguments with publishers about the title as Harrison Shepherd does in the novel.

P.S. This is a work of fiction – Harrison Shepherd, as much as it pains me write it, did not exist, but I hope you all know that Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky were definitely real people!