Book Review: The Lacuna (Kingsolver)

Hello, my erudite darlings! I’m sorry for the lack of actual reviews of late– my supply of ARCs has more or less evaporated. I do have one that will be up as soon as I get around to finishing it. Also (possibly) in the works is my honest opinion of Twilight: The Graphic Novel, and reviews of the other Cybils graphic novel nominees. Today, though, I have a review for you of The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, which isn’t new, but did recently blow me away.

This book covers roughly twenty years in the life of Harrison William Shepherd, first his experiences in Mexico as a boy and with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky as employers, then his life in America during World War II and the Second Red Scare. Kingsolver has said that the foremost question she wanted to examine in writing this book was, why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the US? A mere two decades sampled from our history can’t explain this question fully, but in looking at the period she did, Kingsolver revealed much, and strengthened her thesis by indirectly comparing America’s artisto-political climate to Mexico’s, where art and politics mold together in an almost celebratory way. The most standout character in the book, besides Shepherd himself, was Frida– by the end, you cannot think of her as a historical figure; she is incontrovertibly a real person.

The overarching story of this book is how little we actually know about people like Frida (and Harrison) from the way history paints them; it is the parts of the record that are missing (called “lacunas” by historians) that, when filled, reveal the truth. This book, then, a collection of Harrison’s journals, letters, and relevant news clippings from the time, is the massive piece which completes the puzzle of a life misrepresented. It explores the politics of fear, the inconstancy of public opinion, and the subjectivity of truth against the backdrop of American anti-communism, in a time when to dissent was to offer oneself up to a political and cultural witch hunt. All of this Kingsolver handles with deftness and sensitivity, telling a story that, while inescapably relevant to our current national climate, could only be told in the setting she told it in: it is a story of art, communism, family, and history. It is the story of a man isolated from the world by his upbringing and sexuality who nonetheless finds that he must live in it, and that he can make his mark upon it. It is the story of a life.

In a time when America is dealing with a surge of anger and fear, when “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” is still a touted view, Kingsolver’s novel is not only set in the past. It is a call for conscience and against censorship and intolerance. It highlights the dangers of fear politics, and poses the question, How many voices have been silenced?

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