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Monday, 22 January 2018

Book review: The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

This historical fantasy is ultimately pessimistic, layering events from the first part of the twentieth century upon those of the years after 2001, when truth died again in America. The country never learns, it seems.

The novel assumes a bulbous shape with years of hope and prosperity in the middle preceded by years of dearth and uncertainty and followed by years that are seriously blighted by the McCarthyist purges of the 1950s. The plot is rambling and a lot of fun.

Young Harrison Shepherd’s mother is Mexican and they live in that country having left his father, an American government employee, in Washington, DC. They end up in a house owned by a distant patriarch who cares little for the boy, who ends up in a second-rate Mexico City school before being saved from penury at least when he is taken into the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the famous painters. Shepherd’s life takes another turn when Kahlo sends him to the US as the person in charge of paintings she has sent for an exhibition she would hold there. He then secures employment with the US government as a curator of art, and ends up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he starts writing the novels that will make him famous.

Here, in Kingsolver’s spiritual heartland, Shepherd meets Violet Brown, a discreet widow with a healthy interest in the wide world. She’s just a generation out of the “hells”, the thickly-forested slopes and gullies of the Appalachian Mountains, and is a soul who has been saved from obscurity and the drudgery of a life of endless childbirth by her thirst for knowledge, much like Kingsolver’s heroine in 2012’s ‘Flight Behavior’, Dellarobia Turnbow (which was reviewed on this blog in March 2016).

Here is another strong, lettered Southern woman. Brown is Shepherd’s secretary and she takes a fateful decision when she promises to burn Shepherd’s notebooks at a critical point in the story then breaks that promise, and secretes the volumes away in a cupboard.

Reading this book, you can see how, in 2009, in the aftermath of the Twin Towers and the decision to invade Iraq, Kingsolver might turn to history to critique the imperfect present. For many, it was an easy message to sell by then. The wonder however is that Kingsolver is not better-known, despite having won prizes in the past.

In this novel the media come out looking particularly bad, and it’s no wonder when you think of their servile role between 2001 and 2003, following America’s leadership into war. In Mexico in the lead-up to the murder of Leon Trotsky by the Soviet’s GPU (the State Political Directorate) in 1940 the country’s media were blindly parroting a line that followed the Communist Party’s line on Trotsky, who Stalin wanted dead at any cost. (The media in the US doesn’t come out looking much better, and its productions have a lacklustre relationship with the truth when Kingsolver turns her gaze to focus on the Bonus Army massacre of 1932.)

Shepherd was part of Trotsky’s household, having migrated to a role as secretary there from a post as a cook and mixer of the clay-based stucco Rivera used in his murals, in the household of Rivera and Kahlo. He never truly recovered from the trauma of the assassination, and it troubled him even in his rural seclusion in North Carolina.

As well as his evident PTSD, the novel also ponders Shepherd’s homosexuality. In the years of his success as a novelist his old friend Tom Cuddy seeks to rekindle an earlier romance but once the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) starts its investigations Cuddy rejects his former friend and sexual partner. Cuddy ends up in the book as an advertising executive in a new, postwar America where radio is being replaced by TV.

Brown’s loyalty is the thing that underpins these later pages, just as that of Kahlo had been the thing that kept Shepherd out of trouble in the early years when he was a young man. The “lacuna” of the title is a submerged natural hole leading to a cave he had explored as a boy diving in the bay where his mother’s lover had his villa. The word is also attached to the lost diaries, one of which Shepherd had notably burnt himself: that one about schoolboy indiscretions at a college in the Washington, DC. The diving hole re-enters the story in the final pages to close the loop. The diaries are the book we get to read.

Kingsolver in this novel again demonstrates an ear deftly attuned to dialogue, and an eye equally accurate in its depictions of the truth. The book is made up of a collage of disparate elements stitched together to form a whole, including letters, newspaper articles, and diary entries. There is even a HUAC transcript just before Shepherd returns to Mexico. The author’s ability to change her style to match the tone required for each of these documents, is uncanny. Her timing is equally adroit as she forms a story that shifts to fit the plot at just the right moments.

It’s just unfortunate she felt so disappointed in her country at the end, where you are left feeling trapped by a narrative determined to bring about the kind of separation that you usually avoid in novels. You hardly go to this form of writing to uncover reciprocal feelings of disappointment. You want to feel attached to things, to belong to a larger reality.

The poetry embodied in the novel’s finality is also somewhat negated by the difficulties she puts in the way of her hero finding a way to live profitably as a writer in Mexico. You wonder how differently the story might have worked out if Shepherd had simply moved south of the border and set up a new household there dedicated to bringing out books for a local audience.

Kingsolver describes Shepherd’s attachment to the US as a place of “hope” in contrast to the unpromising view facing the young writer with the prospect of making a living in Mexico, where he had grown up and where the idea of being a novelist had never really occurred to him. He complains to Brown that he can only write in English. It’s hard to keep up the ruse, but the author’s determination to do so makes you think that she wants to make America look special.

There is therefore an element of nationalistic exceptionalism that creeps in at different points to militate against the novel’s ultimate purpose: to critique the xenophobic impulses that animate the US at critical junctures in its history. But it’s not consciously done, I think. She really does believe that America offers special favours to the elect: people like Shepherd and Brown who embrace the positivist modernity it somehow exemplifies despite the unpromising realities of life lived in the Bible Belt.

Beyond that shortcoming, it’s as though Kingsolver short-circuits the narrative in order to put Shepherd where she can more reliably describe his lived experience: in America’s heartland in the South of Kingsolver’s own childhood. But unlike in the case of the 2012 novel already mentioned, it’s not so much here the American South that Kingsolver is ultimately writing about, it’s a global, progressive-minded community that interests her, one that people living in any country can belong to equally as much as New Yorkers or residents of San Francisco. It is germane here to point to the call of a better life that was offered to workers all over the world along with the promises set forth in the October Revolution.

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