Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

Review by Ammonite

I admit that Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, and I think she has outdone herself in this, her latest. The setting is the 1930s and 1940s of Mexico and the United States, and it is obvious that she has dug deeply into research of the period. The story begins with the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, as a young boy living (practically prisoners) with his mother and her wealthy lover on an island off the coast of Mexico. She is an attractive, vivacious Hispanic woman who constantly seeks that perfect wealthy gentleman who will take care of her and her son, in spite of the fact she is still married to his father, a conservative and rather dull paper-pusher in Washington, D.C.

The boy (and the man) becomes involved with wonderfully-dawn characters, including the artists Diego Rivera, his wife, Frida Kahlo, and Leonin Trotsky, as well as many others he meets on his life-changing journey from the island to Mexico City, thence to New York, until he eventually settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he becomes a famous writer of novels about the Aztecs. It is this last, becoming famous, that is his downfall, in the twisted way so many famous (and not so famous) were ruined by J. Edgar Hoover’s pursuit of supposed communists in the years after WWII.

It is only gradually, with hints here and there, that the reader becomes aware that Harrison Shepherd is gay. This is another reason I love this book–it is not about a gay man. It is about a courageous, intelligent, compassionate man that happens to be gay. Kingsolver focuses on how persons may be ruined by gossip, by fear of the unknown, by the press, by how ordinary folks tend to “jump on the bandwagon” of what is made popular by others’ paranoia–in this case, their fear of communism. It is this paranoia that ruins Harrison’s life. Only he happens to be gay, as well. Someday, maybe all stories will be approached like this, wherein being gay only happens to be one more side of one’s personality.

I have been studying how to become a better writer, and it is all in this novel: the perfect metaphors, the spot-on characterizations, the beautifully-structured sentences, sensory descriptions, stimulating ideas, on and on and on. The title is a metaphor and so is the first paragraph:

“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”

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