Fiction: "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

A writer's life becomes Kingsolver's American panorama

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"An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery," writes Harrison William Shepherd, the fictional memoirist of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel.

Shepherd commits, or tries to commit, no treacheries here.

In this novel, Kingsolver's first since "Prodigal Summer" almost a decade ago, he records the arc of his life from an unschooled book-loving child in 1920s Mexico to a celebrated writer in the United States to his subsequent persecution during the anti-communism fervor of the 1950s.

In doing so, he gives voice to some of the tumultuous events that shaped the 20th century identities of his two countries.

That prismatic view is somewhat of a trouble here, although his story in Kingsolver's accomplished literary hands is so seductive, the prose so elegant, the architecture of the novel so imaginative, it becomes hard to peel away from the book for long.

Kingsolver, the writer behind the Bellwether Prize for socially responsible fiction, is unapologetically a novelist seeking to make a liberal or progressive statement. She usually tells the alternative, socially conscious stories, the ones that contemporary historians may not have recounted deeply.


By Barbara Kingsolver.
HarperCollins ($26.99)

It quickly becomes obvious that "The Lacuna" (meaning a missing space) seeks to amplify the story of well-known 20th century events from the perspective of the downtrodden, the liberals, the freethinking artists.

Her instrument for this ambitious story is the half-American half-Mexican Shepherd. An alienated, sweet-voiced, closeted gay man, Shepherd moves through these events uncomplainingly, always looking outward, writing down his observations from his liberal perspective.

In Washington, D.C., he witnesses the bloody Bonus Army riots of the Depression. In Mexico, he becomes the plaster mixer for the muralist Diego Rivera and is befriended by his temperamental wife, the artist Frida Kahlo.

He is also Leon Trotsky's translator when the exiled Soviet official and his wife hide out at Rivera's house from Russian assassins.

And in the end, after he settles in Asheville, N.C., and achieves success as a writer of historical potboilers, Shepherd bears witness to our familiar Red Scare story as he appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Kingsolver builds her novel with Shepherd's diaries, memoirs, letters, book reviews and congressional transcripts. From all this, her character moving voice rises gracefully, thoughtfully, glinting with wit. Yet his eye, although detailed, sometimes naively misses shades of gray in characters. Here lies the novel's flaw:

On so big a canvas the complexities of thought, reason and emotion that impel human behavior are glossed over at times.

So, nuances go missing. Government, conquerors, businessmen and media are bad; the poor, the socialists, the artists and such are good. The result is a sad predictability, a loss of surprise for readers.

Still, "The Lacuna" is a dramatic novel elevated by Kingsolver's masterful writing.

Kingsolver's craft overshadows her politics. She spotlights life in mid-20th century America and forces us to confront events and prejudices we may have forgotten.

She also presents some wonderful characters besides Shepherd. His loyal secretary Mrs. Brown, for instance, who saves his diaries and rescues him from the treachery of an imperfectly remembered life. Temperamental Kahlo and Rivera leap off the pages in Technicolor. And Salome, Shepherd's beautiful Mexican mother, who, although one-dimensional, manages a speech that gleams with freshness.

She isn't an apple pie mother. In the opening pages, we learn she took 12-year-old Shepherd off to Mexico when she left his American father and ran off with Enrique, a rich businessman from the island of Isla Pixol. Later, after she has left Enrique for yet another man in Mexico City, she packs Shepherd off to his bureaucrat father in Washington, where the teenager attends a military academy.

But Isla Pixol remains Shepherd's rock, the place where his worldview was formed, where the Mexican history books he read as a young boy and the hours he spent exploring the sea yielded the prism through which he sees the world for the rest of his life.

And it is to Isla Pixol that Kingsolver turns in the end, bringing this story full circle, filling in the lacuna.

Geeta Sharman Jensen is the former book editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


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