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Book Review: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

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A lacuna is a black hole or space that interrupts text or artwork, making it difficult for the observer to interpret the document's meaning. Although it literally means "lake," a lacuna usually refers to paper or papyrus that has flaked off an ancient scroll leaving a historian guessing about the words or hieroglyphics that might have stood in its place. Without knowing what the Egyptian priestess did to please her god, a befuddled scholar might be tempted to make something up. Maybe. The lacuna is a troublesome bit of mystery, always underscoring the fragility of humanity's works under the rough press of time.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her latest thoughtful and troubling novel, looks at a lacuna from all sides, seeing it as both a problem and as a possible hiding place. In Lacuna, her protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, a boy who will grow up to become a novelist, discovers a most enticing underwater cave that parts like the mouth of a clam at the full moon. The boys in town call this cave a lacuna. But they claim you can never swim into it or you will drown. Young Shepherd finds that he doesn't dive to his demise, but finds a magical land at the other end. Yet knowing his mother will panic if he doesn't return directly, he glides back through the lacuna. He never forgets.

Kingsolver tells Shepherd's life story in a way that could have been needlessly complex in the hands of a less skilled writer. Shepherd's journals from boyhood and adulthood appear, often interrupted by secretary Violet Brown, who persuades Shepherd to continue with the biographical process. It's she who supplies a vital notebook that was missing — a very important lacuna in the complex tale of Harrison Shepherd. Then, the two wrangle back and forth until Brown wraps the story up for posterity in her tidy, white-gloved manner. Never once does the reader mistake Shepherd's rich language for Brown's precise tone, so exact is Kingsolver's attention to character. The result is a smooth biography of a bumpy time in our nation's history.

For anyone who thinks we now live in a time of shocking assaults on civil liberties, Lacuna is a vivid reminder of what our beleaguered Bill of Rights and Constitution went through during World War II and the Cold War. We like to think of our newspapers as spotless heralds of the truth; the vaunted members of the Fourth Estate. We can laugh along when Kingsolver plays with quaint little columns from the fictional small-town press. However, the joke isn't funny anymore when she trots out some really ugly, true material such as a vile, anti-Asian story on Japanese beetles in the garden, published by wholesome old Life magazine in 1944. Even the New York Times, our holier-than-thou, national newspaper of record is quoted as printing "2,541 Aliens Now in Custody," (Dec. 13, 1941), a piece that is all fact, but leaves a sense of vilifying Germans, Japanese, and Italians living in the United States. Think we've learned anything? What about the second Nigerian man who was led off a Detroit jetliner in handcuffs recently because he stayed in the bathroom too long? If he were white would there be any trouble? And what of Muslim-Americans? How fairly are they treated by the press?

Against this backdrop of bigotry, Japanese internment camps, hatred for surrealist art, and a general feeling of xenophobia, Kingsolver sets Shepherd, a dual American/Mexican citizen. His mother is Mexican and drags him down to Mexico to spend his formative years. There he happens upon artist Diego Rivera. He mixes plaster for the great man as he paints his famous murals at the Mexico City royal palace. Then he makes the acquaintance of Frida Kahlo, Rivera's wife. He ends up cooking for the couple. Eventually Russian revolutionary and odd-man-out (thanks to strongman Josef Stalin) Leon Trotsky ends up living with the Riveras and Shepherd — because he can type — becames Trotsky's secretary. (Note that Kingsolver calls the Russian "Lev Trotsky" throughout, even though he changed his birth name, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, to Leon Trotsky before the Russian Revolution. No explanation is given.)

There is nothing political about Shepherd. Although he tends to side with the have-nots, he has no party loyalties. All he wants to do is write fiction at night. He likes Trotsky as a person and hates Stalin for the man's relentless persecution of this gentle revolutionary. When Trotsky is killed, the Riveras send Shepherd to New York with a show of Frida's paintings for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With his U.S. passport, he has no problems. With his American father dead, he has to eventually find a place to call home.

Eventually, he finds that home in Asheville, S.C. When his lost Mexico City manuscript literally shows up almost as a miracle, Shepherd flattens the pages, does a bit of editing, finds an editor, and he becomes an author. Against all odds, his tale of the Aztecs (really the proto-Aztecs) and the pyramids at Teotihuacan becomes a huge hit. He goes on to write a sequel — also an astonishing hit. Now able to eat regularly, he hires a secretary, the redoubtable Mrs. Brown.

The press hums about him like bumblebees. However, here is where he makes his fatal mistake. He says he doesn't want the person (himself) to be famous, just the writing. But he doesn't realize that he's created a lacuna. Without any facts in front of them, without a friendly smile, or even a "no comment" with a wink, the press is left doing what they do best — make it up.

So, the imaginations go wild. He is called the town's "most eligible bachelor," and the press imagine every kind of match (but no one can imagine he's gay). When Mrs. Brown accompanies him to the Mexican pyramids of Chichen Itza, the newspapers immediately assume he's seeing a woman 17 years his senior. She's devastated. Yet still he won't call the papers to protest.

Then he's asked to sign a form saying he was never a member of the Communist Party, which he does with vigor. Mrs. Brown wrings her hands, but he sees nothing wrong. The reader knows something is badly wrong.

It's J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) — all who want to know what he was doing hanging around with Communists during his young years. They insist on banging at his door with false photos. They plant rumors to newspapers. His third book bombs horribly, because bookstores refuse to stock books by authors on a list of reputed Communists.

He can't go to a friendly member of the press to straighten all this out, because he hasn't made any friends. Even a former lover never got close enough to know the truth, so he turns his back also. Shepherd drew his lacuna all about him and no one but Brown knows his true story. In the end, he finds shelter in this dark space. Readers may find a metaphysical sense of hope there. Others will be buoyed by Brown's courageous act of creating the biography.

My only quibble with Kingsolver's magnificent novel is the way the House committee hearing runs. Even though Shepherd has his lawyer by his side, he lets himself be bullied at every turn, made to say things that were obviously inflated. When he explains that he was just a typist for Trotsky, they insist that he was spreading his ideas throughout the world. The lawyer says not a word.

Still, one can't help but adore a book so filled with the love of writing, the glory of good books, and the life of a good soul set against the backdrop of a life lived during dangerous times.

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About Lynn Voedisch

  • brook Stableford

    Barbara Kingsolver is speaking at a writers’ conference Mexico in February 2010. Does anyone know anything about it? Someone mentioned in a reading group that she is going to speak and lead workshops at a conference. Does anyone know anything about it? Thanks. I want to go!

  • Lynn Voedisch

    She’s all about the internment camps, Christy, along with just about every injustice you can imagine. What scares me is that the press went along with it–just as it did with the Iraq War. We woke up faster. But how are things going now for Muslim-Americans?

  • Nice review, Lynn. I’d been eyeing The Lacuna; now I know where that Christmas gift card is going! On a side note, I like that she’s brought our country’s abysmal history in civil liberties into the present. My husband’s grandmother and family were interned during WWII, even while her husband was in the US Army in Europe. I agree that we are in grave danger of, once again, forgetting the past.