As a “writer of conscience” with a following whose size and dedication rivals that of Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver holds an unusual position in contemporary American fiction. Her last novel, 1999’s Poisonwood Bible, about a family of American missionaries who move to the Belgian Congo, earned worldwide praise as well as Oprah’s worth-its-weight-in-gold circular sticker.
Kingsolver’s much-anticipated return to fiction takes us to 1920s, post-revolutionary Mexico, invoking real historical events and personalities as it crosses and re-crosses the U.S. border through FDR, the war and the McCarthy era. Harrison Shepherd, the book’s half-Mexican, half-American central character, is the physical embodiment of the novel’s geographic aspirations.
The story begins in Mexico on the remote island hacienda of the attaché on whom Shepherd’s fickle, gold-digging mother has pinned her hopes after leaving her passive, government “bean-counter” husband. Left to his own devices, Shepherd spends his days learning the art of making pan dulce dough from the sympathetic cook, reading Jules Verne and exploring a local lacuna — an underwater cave filled with ancient bones and treasures.
As his mother flits from one failed affair to another, Shepherd is sent for a time to Washington, where his father boards him at a military academy. School is predictably dreadful, but the sight of war veterans taking to the streets to demand their bonuses piques Shepherd’s social awareness. His sexual awareness is piqued too — by a fellow male student — and he is expelled shortly afterward.
He moves next to Mexico City, where his dough-making skills come in unexpectedly handy securing him a job as plaster boy and cook to muralist Diego Rivera. As Shepherd gains Rivera’s trust and a place in his home, he finds an unexpected friend in Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, who fondly dubs him “insólito” after he reveals the reason for his expulsion from the academy.
When the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky comes to live under Rivera and Kahlo’s wing (and, eventually, Kahlo’s skirts), Shepherd takes on additional duties as Trotsky’s typist. He also begins work on a novel — an Aztec potboiler about the “scandals of the ancients.”
But Trotsky is assassinated, and a shocked, disillusioned Shepherd leaves again for the U.S. He settles in sedate Asheville, North Carolina, where, after discovering that Kahlo has shipped the manuscripts and journals he had presumed were destroyed by Mexican police, embarks on a solitary writing life. To his surprise, his pompously titled Vassals of Majesty is an overnight success. Shepherd hires the services of a local widow and stenographer named Violet Brown to help him manage his affairs. But as communist fears gain a stranglehold on the country, Shepherd’s past associations put him in the improbable position of having to answer to the Committee of Un-American Activities for words uttered by the characters in his novels.
Most of the story is presented in the form of Shepherd’s diaries, salvaged by Brown, who acts as archivist after his death. The problem is, the 13-year-old Shepherd sounds suspiciously like the 30-year-old Shepherd and, oddly, he never writes in the first person (it’s odd enough that Brown feels compelled to explain it as: “a habit that claimed him for life: his manner of scarcely mentioning himself.”) Already though, the curtain is pulled away: we know Kingsolver is simply masquerading as Harrison Shepherd.
The leitmotif of lacunas — gaps — runs through the novel. But the real lacuna in the room is Shepherd himself, who, despite bearing witness to earth-shattering historic events and kibitzing with colourful characters, maintains a calm so preternatural it borders on the laconic. The most intriguing aspect of his character — his closeted homosexuality — is barely explored and strangely not exploited during the witch-hunt against him.
There are passages in The Lacuna, particularly those set in Mexico, that feel rich with possibility. But in the end the novel as a whole plays out as a protracted “teaching moment.” The last part positively drags, dwelling lumberingly on parallels with post-9/11 media-driven paranoia, as when Shepherd’s lawyer instructively says: “When that bomb went off over Japan, when we saw that an entire city could be turned to fire and gas, it changed the psychology of this country. And when I say ‘psychology,’ I mean that very literally. It’s the radio, you see. The radio makes everyone feel the same thing at the same time.”
Kingsolver’s audience is aware that history has more than one side, and that it repeats itself, sometimes in terrible ways. These stories will always need telling, but The Lacuna never engages us enough to get beyond what feels like a stern object lesson in the annals of injustice.