Book review: The Lacuna

Posted on September 18, 2012

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This article was originally written for MouthLondon magazine

I’m a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, the Orange Prize winning writer who penned the brilliant The Poisonwood Bible. Her latest novel, The Lacuna, is packed full of the same exoticism, but this time is fictionalised history – weaving around the lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. Tracing the course of an entire lifetime, it’s a big book, and not just physically.

The Lacuna comprises of the diaries of Harrison Shepherd, a fictional half Mexican, half American boy employed to make the plaster for Rivera’s frescoes who worms his way into the household of Rivera and Kahlo. He rises above his station when Trotsky, fleeing Stalin, comes to stay and encourages young Shepherd in his passion for writing. As history tells, things soon fall apart.

There are times when the story feels a slave to history; dragging on as we wait for Trotsky to finish feeding the chickens and something to happen. But then, it is when we follow Shepherd away from the vibrancy of Mexico and into a realm beyond the constraints of history that the book loses much of its hold, although this could be down to the loss of the most enthralling characters.

…a novel that uses historic events and characters as a backdrop…

Ultimately using a fictional character as narrator limits our access. Rather than fiction built on historical fact, The Lacuna builds a fictional narrative around obstacles imposed by history. There are glimpses of the alternative – a novel that uses historic events and characters as a backdrop – but it is the drabness of the character of Shepherd, in comparison to the vivacious shoulders he brushes with, that shifts the balance away from this.

Closing the book after turning the final page, I really did feel like I had absorbed the story of an entire life. My memories of Shepherd as a boy, learning to make rosca, feel similarly distant to my own childhood memories. Kingsolver certainly knows how to craft a life and progress a character.

…it could have been five separate novels…

I have not lost faith in the brilliance of Kingsolver. The Lacuna is obviously the result of a deep passion and commitment on Kingsolver’s part; it is truly ambitious, at times dazzlingly poetic, and gives a sophisticated and insightful review of America’s relationship with communism. But I can’t help feeling it tries to do one too many things. Covering themes from life in 1930s Mexico, to the Russian revolution, and anti-communist censorship in 1950s America, not forgetting art, fame, cultural identity, love, and friendship; it could have been five separate novels. Unfortunately, noble ambitions have been pursued at the expense of the simple charms of character, and the narrative has lost sight of the story.

3 Stars

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