by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial 2010, original pub. date 2009)
I have loved about every Kingsolver book I have ever read, from The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, through Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And this one did not disappoint. Cast as a collection of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and commentary, The Lacuna follows the amazing life of Harrison W. Shepherd, beginning when he was taken to his mother’s native Mexico as a teenager after his parents’ divorce and ending in Asheville, North Carolina, where he lived a solitary life except for his secretary, Violet Brown, his only friend in Asheville and his biographer–the protector and transcriber of the aforementioned journals, letters, and clippings as well as the author of the commentary. Together, Violet and Harrison tell how he came to be employed (first as a plaster mixer, then as a cook and finally as a secretary) by the painter Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo; how employment in the Rivera household led to employment in the household of Russian fugitive Lev Trotsky, until his death in 1940; how he next returned to the United States accompanying some of Kahlo’s artwork, somehow ending up in Asheville, where he published two well-received “pot-boiler” novels set in ancient Mexico and became very successful, until Joseph McCarthy and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee destroyed his livelihood and his career, as they did so many others’. In this way, Kingsolver takes the reader on a journey through some of the most interesting events of the mid-twentieth century.
Throughout the novel, the concept of a lacuna is woven into the story. A lacuna is a gap or hole in something, a part that is missing. The first and last lacuna is a kind of tunnel through rock under the sea along a Mexican beach. In between, the loss of one of Harrison Shepherd’s notebooks, the journals he kept all his life, creates another missing link in his story. In an interview in the back of the book, the author describes her quest for a suitable title, and how she finally consulted a thesaurus and found “a grotto, a chasm, an orifice, an interval, a missing link, a void, a . . . lacuna, . . . This word whose many intertwined meanings unlocked every room in the [story].”
The characters are fully formed and (mostly) eminently likable: Harrison Shepherd himself, Violet Brown, the lawyer Artie Gold, Lev Trotsky, and more. Of villains there are plenty: Stalin, of course, and Senator McCarthy, as well as numerous unnamed F.B.I. agents and scurrilous reporters who make up “facts” to please their readers without any consideration for the innocent lives they destroy. The description of the unraveling of the protagonist’s quiet life by a movement which was by far more un-American than anything it could have uncovered in its hearings sickened me. This is America? Of course I knew that it had happened, was still happening, in fact, as my life began. But a novel enables the reader to live the terror along with the protagonist, a simple man who favored opportunity and justice for common people but who was apolitical in his actions. This did not save him from the anti-Communist frenzy that was consuming the soul of America in the late forties and early fifties.