I’ve never been much of a Barbara Kingsolver fan. I forgive myself for forgetting exactly what I objected to because it’s been so long since I read anything of hers and so long since she wrote a new novel. But since she’s now become (unbeknownst to her) family of a sort–her brother recently married a distant relative of my wife’s–I felt compelled to give The Lacuna a try. I can’t say it’s made me a devotee, but I’m certainly an admirer now.
First, the title. A lacuna is a gap in a manuscript or text. It’s also a hole in a submerged rock through which water ebbs and flows and which for the ambitious diver can become a doorway into lost worlds. Or it can be an opening in a life, like a tunnel, which can lead to transformations. Alice’s rabbit hole might be called a Lacuna. See why I say we all need one?
Kingsolver’s writer/protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, dives through one of the watery kind when a boy practicing how to hold his breath. He squeezes through a number of metaphorical ones during the pages of this ambitious tale.
Shepherd is an amazingly passive fellow to be at the center of a story of this magnitude. Which is part of the point, I guess. He’s the fly on the wall in the drawing rooms of the great. He’s very young when we meet him, dominated by a dominating mother who drags him from place to place trying to hook up with a rich man. We’re in Mexico, her home and native land. His father is back in D.C., where they left him because he fell short in both currency and passion.
During the course of his wanderings, our hero falls in with the Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Lev Trotsky, and a number of other historical figures. During a couple of years’ adolescent exile to the states, he falls victim to tear gas and nearly to a saber when then-majors Patton and MacArthur execute their shameful attack on the bonus army in 1930. During all this time, he is a servant. A cook. A clerk. A guy in the background with a notebook who does little or nothing to affect the action around him or in his own life. The two years in D.C. are the only formal schooling he ever has.
Finally, he lands in Asheville, N.C., near the start of WWII. He meets the woman, Violet Brown, who eventually becomes his “archivist,” the putative compiler of the journals and letters that become this novel. It sounds complex, and is it ever. Layers and layers of history and art and politics and personality. And voices. Violet Brown, in particular, is a voice from the hollers of Eastern Kentucky that is almost Shakespearean both in cadence and diction. “I believe these texts to be loyal and staunch to his.” She states near the beginning. Those hollers are where Kingsolver grew up, so she’s kept her ear for the language. I wonder if it still exists like that. I expect TV has flattened it out a lot.
Kingsolver’s imagaic ear and eye are apparent from the beginning. “…first hour of dawn, just when the hem of the sky began to whiten” and “maroon-throated howls” are drawn from the first paragraph, and she doesn’t let up. She’s a lyricist. Every one of her characters is unique and fully drawn.
So with all this to recommend it, what complaints might I level against this very good book? Harrison Shepherd is just too much of a wuss. I kept interested and reading because he was always getting involved with fascinating people. But he himself wasn’t there much. Not in a way that turned events through his own efforts. I didn’t fully realize this was bothering me till the last hundred or hundred and fifty pages when a crisis of immense proportions develops and he is forced, finally, to act. And the story becomes one of those can’t-wait-to-finish-but-please-don’t-let-it-end experiences.
I won’t say more except to mention that the crisis is immense not only for him but for America. Although The Lacuna is not a tract or a polemic, it’s a reminder of how perilous our liberties become in the hands of demagogues like certain politicians whom you can surely name. So in that sense, this is not history, but current events.
Anyway, whatever else it is, it’s a full and rewarding read. Provocative, poetic, absorbing. I hope she doesn’t wait another seven years.