When I peeled back the wrapping paper last December to reveal Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, I was thrilled. Since Mr. Stoia’s English class junior year, when we were required to read her most famous novel, Poisonwood Bible (1998), I had fallen in love with Kingsolver’s precise and captivating character voice, her political motivations, and her deeply researched historical plots and settings. To this day, it is still my very favorite piece of literature.
So as I opened the first page of The Lacuna at the beginning of this month (the semester was just a little too heavy to dive into a 500+ page “for fun” read), I had high hopes.
The story follows the varied path of Harrison Shepherd, starting on a small island of Isla Pixol, Mexico in 1929, at age 13. Recently uprooted from his father’s America, Shepherd lives with his Mexican-born, extravagent mother in the hacienda of her current cavalier. And so begins the life-long journey of being Mexican, American, and neither all at once. The liminality of this novel is not reserved only for Shepherd’s nationality however. On page 29 we get the first interruption of Shepherd’s journal-like narrative by an “Archivist” represented here only by “V.B.” And although for the most part, the story is told from Shepherd’s voice, we get the occassional commentary by the elusive V.B., which for some reason seemed to offer a sense of credibility to the story in a way that I wasn’t sure if Shepherd was a real historical figure or not until I did some research afterwards.
Shepherd, as a dual citizen, jumps back and forth between his parent nations and is suspiciously closely involved in matters of international news. It is here that Kingsolver’s mastery for accuracy of historical research really shines through however. First Shepherd finds himself as the plaster mixer for famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Later, he runs admist the chaos of the Bonus Army massacre in Washington, D.C., as Gen. MacArthur and Maj. Patton lead the U.S. Army to attack its own veterans with bayonets and adamsite gas. Shepherd then heads back to Mexico, becoming the cook and secretary to Diego Rivera and his also-famous-painter wife, Frida Kahlo. Their home is soon occupied by Lev Davidovich Trotsky, the Boleshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist who was exiled from the Soviet Union by his adversary, Stalin. Shepherd then heads back to America as a transport for a shipment of Kahlo’s paintings, and eventually resides in Asheville, NC, just as America is entering into World War II. Following the war, Shepherd’s past catches up with him, as the Red Scares really start rumbling, and his loyalty to America is called into question.
Pieced together with journal entries, letters, newspaper articles, reviews, and court transcripts, Kingsolver’s newest work sometimes reads as a report rather than a novel. While her knack for making history personal still comes through, what I missed in this novel was her ability of creating spot-on character voices. For me, the characters in this story fell a little flat. I felt more connected with the secondary character “V.B.” than I did with Shepherd, despite him being present on every page. To be honest, I stuck with The Lacuna out of loyalty to the author, rather than connection to the story. Like her others, it certainly peaked my interest about the history, but other than that, it was a rough 507 pages.