Friday, June 03, 2011

Flashback Friday - Barbara Kingsolver

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver: My book club chose this novel. It had been years since I'd read Kingsolver (THE POISONWOOD BIBLE), and I remembered that it always takes me at least a hundred pages before I connect to her characters, but once I do, the bond is absolute. Her plots are so complex and sprawling that being dropped into the middle of a world she's written is disorienting, even off-putting. But that world is so rich that it seizes the reader's imagination and won't let go. I emerge from a reading session forgetting for a moment that I am not in the kitchen of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo's home, where a meal for an exiled Trotsky is being prepared. This sprawling novel takes place between 1929 and 1951 and addresses Mexican history and art, the rise of Communism, the Red Scare and HUAC, American internment camps during World War II, and Jim Crow laws.

The novel is made up of the notebooks kept by quiet, unassuming Harrison Shepherd, product of a discontented Mexican mother and rather boring American father. His mother leaves Washington, D.C. to follow her oilman lover to Mexico, where Harrison primarily grows up, shadowing the kitchen. The skills he acquires in making pan dulce translate eerily well to mixing plaster for muralist Diego Riviera, and he soon becomes a part of the Riviera household, befriending Frida Kahlo and typing for Trotsky, who is in exile. At night, he works on his own novel, set in the Aztec kingdom. After Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison is sent back to the United States, where he becomes a well-known novelist just in time for McCarthyism to mark him as a Communist.

In less capable hands, this could have been an utter mess that no amount of suspension of disbelief could clean up, but Kingsolver is a master. She deftly blends fact and fiction and her insertion of the quiet Harrison into major world events brings them to life. Frida Kahlo and Trotsky, in particular, are rich, complex characters. Harrison is a perfect counterpoint to his larger-than-life companions, and his life, in its own quiet way, is just as compelling. A lacuna can refer to the underwater cave that challenges Harrison as a boy on Isla Pixol, or to a section of missing text, like the notebook from Harrison's childhood that has disappeared. Harrison himself is something of a lacuna, lifted from his rightful place in American literature by HUAC. As the underwater cave opens up into a sinkhole in the jungle, a place of ancient sacrifices. Harrison begins as a cook in Mexico, but emerges a literary force in America, only to be pushed back into obscurity.

This is a glorious novel of history, revolution, and culture, an incisive commentary on modern society, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Very highly recommended.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

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