Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Review by Jamie Mollart

Many readers will know Kingsolver from her 1998 award winning best seller The Poisonwood Bible. The fact that The Lacuna took 10 years to complete and publish imbues it with a certain level of expectation. And surely no book is worth waiting 10 years for? Well, nearly.

The main character, Harrison Shepherd, is a writer of popular potboilers set in the days of the Aztecs and Cortes’ invasion of Mexico. In the fifties Harrison finds himself under the gaze of the anti-communism McCarthy hearings, due to the years he spent in the employment of famous painters Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. When banished from the Soviet Union by Stalin it is with Rivera that Leon Trotsky spent his final days, and the young Harrison was employed as a secretary, dictating Trotsky’s thoughts and articles.

The book is composed of diary entries, short prose pieces, articles and letters collected together to form a coherent whole by Harrison’s faithful secretary Violet Brown. The earliest entries look back to his childhood on an island off Mexico so remote, that you have to ‘call Jesus’s name 3 times before he hears you’ and continue up to fifties America. The Lacuna of the title is an underwater cave that exists off the coast of the island. Once a month the tide flows in such a way that the brave diver is rushed along the tunnel and surfaced on the other side in a hidden cove. The idea of being able pass through a tunnel to a better world is something that haunts Harrison for his entire life.

Harrison guides us through the history of American mistakes like a literary Forest Gump; taking in the Mexican Revolution, the bombing of Hiroshima, the erection of the Iron Curtain, McCarthyism. But unlike Gump Shepherd is not the main character of his story. His position is that of the dedicated observer, chronicling events only. He is perpetually in the background, over shadowed by his flamboyant and increasingly unhinged mother, the larger than life Frida Kahlo and finally hiding behind the words of his blockbuster novels.

Kingsolver tells us on a number of occasions that he is a man that people don’t notice. As the invisible reporter he is in essence he is a metaphor for the art of writing. Of course, this could be a dangerous game to play with the reader, a lead character who is nondescript, yet Kingsolver pulls it off. Despite, or perhaps because of his passivity Shepherd became a character that I cared for deeply. As primarily a conduit through which we view events (and even Harrison’s writing are second hand, because we are reading Violet Brown’s edited version) Harrison is a victim of the things he reports. The sad irony being that he is eventually condemned for actions which he didn’t take, merely presented to us.

There’s something weighty about identity at the core of The Lacuna, but also about the position of the writer in society and the purpose of literature in our communities. The artists at the core of the novel, Rivera, Kahlo are presented as essentially political entities, using their art as part of the revolution. Whereas the written word is observation only, even the poet Andre Breton who briefly appears is shown to be less influential than the artists. The novels that Harrison writes are dismissed as populace and crass, the real value in his writing is his private work, the stuff he keeps for himself.

After reading it I thought for a while about the structure, because it is something of a russian doll, and again I think this is purposeful and intended to add to the imagery. There is nothing in this multi-layered novel that is accidental. We get a first person narrative that is a deeply personal view of larger events, that is then edited and compiled at a later date. It is as if we are looking at something huge through a telescope turned the wrong way. It is a quite brilliant device and contributes to the novel’s success.

There is a potential for a book constructed in the way of a collage to feel very piece meal. But even though the narrative is fractured across various forms there is a beautiful flow to the story arc. It pulls you along, like the tide through the Lacuna and you barely notice that you are switching mediums.

Kingsolver’s writing is rich in imagery and metaphor, even the title has multiple meanings. The Lacuna is not only the cave through which Shepherd dives, but also represents a gap in text, a gap in linguistic meaning, the lack of a legal source, or a tool for unlocking cultural differences. Each one is pertinent to the story. There is a line in the book that reads ‘the most important part of a story is the piece you don’t know’ and it is this central conceit around which she has weaved her complex plot.

The Lacuna is a book that addresses a number of important topics, I’ve already mentioned identity, but she also looks at imperialism, mass hysteria, and disease, both physical and social. That said, it is an incredibly smooth read. There are only a handful of moments when it strays near to polemic, particularly when talking about McCarthyism, but on the whole it is so skilfully crafted that you can forgive it. When presented with so many challenging subjects it would be easy to become overwhelming, but she doesn’t allow the ideas to get in the way of what is a cracking story.

***

Jamie Mollart is a writer based in Leicester. His work has been published in a number of magazines and newspapers.  He is actively involved in Litopia, the web’s oldest forum for writers. As well as appearing on the podcast along with Eve he manages the award winning Twitter feed, which now has 14,000 follows and he is part of the editorial team for the Litopia ezine, MUSE.

He is currently finishing his second novel, the first is on the submission roller coaster. The first started out as Literary Fiction and ended up as a thriller, who knows what the second one will end up as?

In the real world he is an Associate Director of a well respected advertising agency and is alleged to know a fair bit about Social Media.

His website is www.jamiemollart.co.uk and you can follow Litopia’s Twitter at www.twitter.com/litopia

8 comments on “The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. john latham
    March 5, 2011

    What an excellent review. I read ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ years ago- and thought it a very good read- and have bought ‘The Lacuna’ some time ago- it is only its length that has been holding me back. I think ‘gaps’ and literary devices are very interesting, but it is perhaps the topic that the author has written about which means that I really must start it soon.
    Thanks,
    Jon.

  2. Jamie mollart
    March 5, 2011

    Cheers!

    I’ve not read poison wood bible, after reading The Lacuna I added it to my amazon wish list though.

    The length put me off initially too, well worth the effort though

  3. martine
    March 5, 2011

    thanks for your review, I have this book sitting menacingly on my dressing table and having started and abandoned The Poisonwood Bible I was not sure I really wanted to tackle this one. You have however really sparked my interest so I will give it a go.
    much love martine

  4. annebrooke
    March 5, 2011

    I’m with John above on this one – I did love The Poisonwood Bible, though haven’t yet bought this one. I must add it to my pile, perhaps when I’m feeling more intellectual though!

    Many thanks for the review.

    Anne B

  5. Jackie
    March 5, 2011

    What a great review! I really liked how Jamie unpeeled the many layers of the novel & explored all of the avenues presented, all the while making the plot intriguing. I’ve read “The Poisonwood Bible” some time ago, but haven’t read any of the author’s other works. This one sounds like it would be quite a meaty read & I like how art plays such a large part. Thanks for a really well done review of a complex book.

  6. Sharonrob
    March 5, 2011

    Thanks Jamie for a smashing review. The Lacuna was one of my favourite books last year. My reading group chose it and as I had really struggled with The Poisonwood Bible, I wondered how I’d get on with it. However, I found The Lacuna very hard to put down; I loved everything about it, the narrator, the variety of settings, the fat, chunky solidity of it, but especially the way McCarthyism emerges by degrees as a sort of political horror story. Shepherd’s growing sense of dread and Violet Brown’s perspective really ratchet up the tension. I enjoyed it so much I’m thinking about giving The Poisonwood Bible another whirl.

  7. Nikki
    March 7, 2011

    I’ve often heard that both The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna are excellent, although never been sure what they were about. But now I think I’m going to have to read The Lacuna, at least!

  8. Andrew Blackman
    March 9, 2011

    I went to the Orange Prize readings at the South Bank Centre last year, and although Barbara Kingsolver was the most entertaining speaker, I didn’t enjoy her reading that much. Perhaps in a complex book it’s hard to pick out one passage to read – certainly she seemed to spend longer setting the context than actually reading! Anyway that’s why I haven’t read this, even though I did enjoy Poisonwood Bible. After reading this review, though, I feel tempted to give it a try after all.

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2011 by in Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .

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