The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember those sacred pools with waterfalls and lush foliage in the movies that could only be accessed by diving down into an underwater cave, holding your breath, and coming up on the other side – that’s a lacuna. You could be stuck there if you lost track of time and the tide came in – or you might be able to swim out the other side. Kingsolver uses the word “lacuna” as an analogy for Harrison Shepherd’s life as well as the gap between reality and what could be – in her latest novel – The Lacuna.

The Lacuna is Kingsolver’s first book since writing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – her promotion of healthy living off the land from her family’s experience – an environmentally correct plea ahead of its time, and complete with recipes. In Lacuna, although fiction, she delivers lessons again – this time political and historical.

Harrison Shepherd, whose mother is Mexican and father is American, records his life in diaries that steer the story through the Depression of the early 1930s in Washington, D.C., the lives of famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, the politics of Stalin and Trotsky. This is your life, Harrison Shepherd, from Mexico to North Carolina, from obscurity to fame to disgrace and back again.

This is not Bridget Jones Diary. Harrison Shepherd is a serious boy who becomes a sullen man. At first, the diary is an easy-to-follow recounting of growing up, but it soon morphs into a reporter’s third person account of historical events – educational but not compelling. Somehow, you will need to plough through the middle, and it won’t be easy, but here Kingsolver is laying the foundation for her real story.

The letters between Frida and Shepherd revive the action, and Kingsolver’s reviews of Shepherd as a new successful historical fiction writer will make you want to read his books and wonder why you are still muddling through hers. Eventually, the climax and denouement come – with more history lessons – by this time, it is the House on Un-Amercian Activities that plays a role in Shephard’s life. Kingsolver reminds us of one of the ugliest times in American history, as Harrison Shepherd’s life and career slowly come undone.

Not until the very end will you really know what this was all about – a life story about a lonely historical fiction writer who lives history and makes his own fiction – and the power of public opinion to change a life. It’s no wonder Harrison Shepherd feared people. The literal lacuna – that wonderful grotto – plays a part in the ending, but, by that time, you are as tired of people’s misdirected opinions as Shepherd.

Given the speed-of-light transmissions of celebrity foibles, the sound-bites taken out of context today, and the ease of knowing what is “right,” public assumptions are still a cautionary tale. Mrs. Brown, Shepherd’s assistant/secretary critiques his writing with her advice “…there’s no shame in a clever disguise…to say what you believe and still keep out of trouble…”. Are all writers hiding behind characters to say what they believe?

But sometimes a story is just a story. Robert Frost often cautioned the reader, “Don’t press… too hard. The real meaning is the most obvious meaning.”

2 thoughts on “The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

  1. There are still some problems with the manner in which Kingsolver covers that history.

  2. I think I mentioned this to you before but it applies to The Lacuna remarks: Norman Mailer claimed that, if you want to tell the truth, you have to write fiction.

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