[Published 2010 by Faber and Faber. First published 2009.]
‘The most important part of a story is the part you don’t know’.
This novel, made up of journal entries, newspaper clippings, and personal letters has the power to transport the reader from colourful haciendas in Mexico, to America, and back.
Barbara Kingsolver has achieved a literary feat in this historical novel that explores a range of themes. Introduced to Harrison Shepherd, the author of the journals and letters that forms the basis of this book, as a child, the reader bears witness to the maturation of this young man through his writing. As the book goes on, these writings become almost a discarded history (if not for his stenographer, Violet Brown).
The result is a sincere account of a young man’s story – one that leads him into the house of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, where a lifelong friendship with this extraordinary woman develops. He becomes secretary and cook within the household and his services are retained for an exiled Lev Trotsky. The atmosphere is set as a time bomb of emotions and politics, as these powerful characters are recorded by Shepherd the scribe.
As if by osmosis, and in the wake of tragedy, Shepherd moves to America, towards its hopefulness, in order to start a new life. But, throughout the book, the reader is alerted to the fact that Shepherd is a strong, solitary character – looking for his place in the world, yet relishing its loneliness in some respects; using a life of passion to harness his deepest dreams. And yet, in acquiring fame, he still yearns for invisibility, and history repeats itself as he is now the underdog who has made it big – being misquoted and misrepresented by newspapermen.
Rather than being the land of possibility Shepherd had initially hoped, America is evolving into a land of paranoia and Cold War suspicion; where, like the surrealists and muralists, of dreams and politics, popularity wanes and grows based on the whims of the times. It is a piece of modern history this young author unwittingly parallels with ancient Aztec society in his novels of historical fiction. Truth and presumption merge and then suddenly are in conflict – something that makes for superbly interesting reading.
‘The Lacuna’ is filled with themes that are explored, left, and later revisited in fluid, detailed writing. It is heavy with symbols. If I have any advice for readers thinking of delving into this book, it would be to allow yourself the time to read it slowly and consistently. Kingsolver has created a rich story, a tapestry of events that is a very human mix of optimism and tragedy. And yet, when you reach the end, you can feel the lacuna – the gap in the manuscript that leaves an unquenchable sense of incompleteness, the gap between the rocks under Mexican waters that leads to who knows where.