Lena's Reviews > The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
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's review
Oct 22, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction

Barbara Kingsolver's new character, Harrison Shepard, is a man who lives much of his life on the fringes of larger personalities than his own. His flamboyant Mexican mother sets his course in motion when she takes him from his American home and father to pursue a series of wealthier Mexican men. When her conquests fail to pan out, Shepard goes to work, first as a cook in the kitchens of artists Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, and later as a secretary to the exiled Bolshevik Lev Trotsky. His growing friendship with the complicated Kahlo and proximity to these artist revolutionaries encourages his creative leanings, and he eventually returns to America to pursue his own literary inclinations.

What fascinated me most about this book was the way the story was told. It begins with a chapter written by the older Shepard about his boyhood on a Mexican island, the beginnings of an abandoned memoir. This section is then followed by an insert from an archivist, who reveals that Shepard has become a person of note in his own right. His archivist then moves on to allow the story of Shepard's life to unfold through the collections of writings by and about him, using his journals, letters, news clippings and transcripts to piece together the tale of a man caught unexpectedly in the crossroads of history.

A lacuna is a gap in a manuscript or other piece of art, and the Kingsolver's gentle guiding of the reader's attention to the aspects of the story between those that were preserved on the page is powerful device. There is a lost journal from Shepard's adolescence, burned to hide a scandal that continues to haunt the life of its author. More importantly, however, is the masterful contrast Kingsolver draws between the flesh-and-blood portraits she paints of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky, and Shepard himself versus those told in a press hungry for superficial outlines of made-up villains. While slightly heavy-handed at times, her lesson about not believing everything you hear from the press is one that is as important today as it was during the Red Scare of 50 years ago.

Though beautifully written and consistently interesting, this book didn't fall into the category of gripping page turner for me. The style used to tell the story and the personality of Shepard himself created a certain kind of detachment that made for slower reading. But I still enjoyed the book enormously, the detachment allowing me to savor the story and let its layers sink in as Shepard's openly foreshadowed fate unfolds. The book is a powerful exploration of the gap between truth and the officially told story, and a reminder of the gifts that can be discovered by delving beneath the surface in pursuit of that truth.
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