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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.