Book Review: The Lacuna
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Publisher: Griffin Press (Australian edition)
Reviewed by Stephen Keim
Barbara Kingsolver is, of course, a very accomplished writer of fiction and non-fiction. The Poisonwood Bible had been very popular in, and received encouraging reviews from, Ladies Literary Societies close to me without ever quite piquing enough of my interest to make me invest the time to read it. It awaits.
I had in fact given a copy of The Lacuna to D. for Christmas in 2009.
As it turned out, I read a completely different copy, years later. It was urged upon me by our daughter, L. I was busily reading as much of Mexican literature, travel writing and history as I could in the gaps of an otherwise demanding life. This was a book about Mexico and I would love it, she said.
So, with a respectable semblance of hesitation, I took L.’s advice.
The Lacuna is about Mexico. And a lot more. Some authors, without ever having met me, know how to pander to all my prejudices. Ms. Kingsolver is one of them.
She is still doing it.
Her wonderful article written in the wake of Trump’s election victory is an example of that excellent pandering.
The Lacuna commences in 1929 on a fictional Mexican island called Isla Pixol. It is possibly in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly, off the coast of the State of Tabasco.
The novel’s main protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is 13 years of age. He lives with his mother, Salome, an enthusiastic but not particularly successful gold digger on her boyfriend, Enrique’s hereditary hacienda which takes up most of the island. Salome left Virginia, bringing Harrison with her, in the hope and belief that Enrique would marry her and keep her in the agreeable lifestyle of the wife of a rich man. The reality had turned out to be less fulsomely romantic.
Left largely to himself, Harrison learns to make tortillas and pan dulce, the soft bread from which you make sweet buns, from Leandro, the Indios cook at the hacienda. Harrison learns more than just cooking while helping Leandro in the kitchen. He learns to use goggles and becomes obsessed with the underwater world. He discovers the lacuna, perhaps, a lava cave or cenote, emerging at the shoreline above the lowest low tide but below many other tides. A cave filled with water for much of its length but connecting back to the surface, a long underwater swim inland. Risking his life to drowning, many times, Harrison eventually has sufficient breath and strength to find the lacuna’s other end. He finds the human bones of an ancient mausoleum or sacrificial site.
His discovery was complete just a day before Salome resolved to make their escape to Mexico City. Enrique was away and would be enraged. Salome had a new target for her charms, a man that Harrison christened Mr. Produce the Cash.
The Lacuna is complex in its structure and its narrative methodology. The early chapters are told by an omniscient narrator who refers in the third person to the boy and his mother. The reader learns, however, from an archivist’s note at the end of that first chapter, that Harrison Shepherd is the author of the piece, albeit, talking about himself in the third person. It was written nearly twenty years later by an older Harrison who was, by then, an accomplished author.
But, for reasons which the archivist does not disclose at that point, the autobiographical project stalled. The following chapters do not come from the accomplished author but are the contents of Harrison’s diary, written, at first, by the fourteen year old but developing in age and maturity with the diarist.
The archivist points out that the diarist, like the autobiographer whose work we have already read, eschews the first person perspective. The author of the diary is almost invisible, never talking about himself but, continually, describing those matters and events that fall within his point of view.
As the book proceeds, the archivist shows more of herself and her concerns in life. Eventually, the reader comes to know how important her role has been in Harrison’s life and how much Harrison meant to her.
Ms. Kingsolver’s method works. It lends immediacy to events which span a long period of time. In the latter chapters, it produces poignancy, as the diarist and the archivist give their respective points of view revealing that they seldom spoke to each other about what they really felt or thought.
In Harrison Shepherd, Ms. Kingsolver has created her eye witness to history.
It starts with Mexico City in 1930. Harrison finds out about the politics of the time and the history of a nation. He shops in Coyoacan, then, on the outskirts of Mexico City. At the Melchor market, Harrison sees a woman with a startling face with ferocious black eyes who reminds him of an Aztec queen. He is told that the queen is married to a much talked about painter.
Not by coincidence, Harrison travels to the National Palace on the Zocalo in the centre of the city where the much talked about painter is painting his latest famous mural. A crisis occurs in that the specialist plaster mixer has not turned up to work. Harrison steps up to the mark and, using his pan dulce skills, mixes perfect plaster; makes himself indispensable; and earns the nickname “Sweet Buns”. The double entendre makes every man who hears it laugh.
Through this stratagem, Ms. Kingsolver inserts her witness into the lives of the famous couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The work is interrupted when Rivera goes to San Francisco to make murals for the gringos but the connection has been made.
The Lacuna is not just a novel about 1930s Mexico through the experiences of its most famous artistic couple. The author has a much broader vision than that. Harrison has an American father who works as a public servant in Washington. Having an ever present son has never been convenient to Salome and it becomes less convenient in Mexico City.
Conveniently for the novel, his mother decides to send Harrison, by the long train journey, off to his father’s care in Washington where he goes to the Potomac Academy, an American boarding school. Again, he gets to do chores for a cook and this lets him walk the streets of Washington with Bull’s Eye, an equally poor but much more street savvy student at the Academy. Harrison gets to witness the poverty and politics of Hoover’s America close up and, through Bull’s Eye’s family connections, gets to go inside the Bonus Army encampment at Anacostia Flats composed of protesting veterans and their families and meet one particular family, husband and wife and new born babe, there.
Only weeks later, he is again close to the action as the protesting veterans and their families are attacked by police and soldiers; and driven from their encampment; which is then set on fire. At least two protestors die with over a thousand injured. Harrison gets to witness America at its most cold-hearted.
A volume of the diary is lost at this point. The record is interrupted. The archivist is unable to provide an explanation. The reader never gets to hear what happened to the passion that Harrison had been developing for his fellow traveller of the Washington streets. Was it unreturned and unrequited, as Harrison was fearing in the last pages of the previous volume, or did love blossom only to be quelled by family intervention or terrible tragedy? We can only guess.
The record resumes nearly three and a half years later, in late 1935. Harrison is back in Mexico City and again in the employ of Mr. Rivera. The scene has moved to the Twin Houses in San Angel, also then on the edges of Mexico City and across the road from the San Angel Inn, the old Carmelite monastery (that became a hacienda) where Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata met to divide Mexico between them in 1914 when each of their stars were, for the moment at least, in the ascendant. Leandro’s lessons are still serving Harrison well. He is now in charge of the cooking, using the tiny kitchen to produce the culinary delights that allow Frida and Diego to do the entertaining for which they are also famous.
More important even for the writer of an historical novel than the ins and outs and comings and goings of the relationship between the two painters, the diarist is very well placed to observe the forced itinerant and famous revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, when he arrives with his wife in early 1937.
Trotsky lives in Coyoacan in the Kahlo family house, the Casa Azul. Harrison is sent to work at the Blue House and provides a close up view of the man known for his fiery writing and for giving rise to a movement that has specialised in factionalism. Harrison is there to witness and record with some delicacy the affair between Frida and Leon. When the Trotskys move a few blocks away to Avenida Viena, still in Coyoacan, Harrison goes with them and witnesses the hearings of the Dewey Commission; survives the unsuccessful machine gun attack by Mexican Stalinists led by painter, David Siqueiros; and is nearby when Ramon Mercader launches his fatal attack with an icepick. The fictional version of Mercader is a talentless devotee of Trotsky who manages to get close to the great man by asking Trotsky to look over a manuscript that he has written.
And, if that is not enough history for a novel to retell in personal and intimate terms, Harrrison, in the aftermath of Trotsky’s death, washes up in Asheville, North Carolina and becomes a successful writer. The years of keeping a careful diary had serves him well. He lives a solitary live with only a house and bookkeeper/stenographer, Violet Brown, to keep him company, on occasion.
But history, in post war America, did not give a quiet life to writers who had once worked with a famous revolutionary and it was not long before the writer is testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and not much longer before criminal charges are likely to be on their way.
At a time like this, when in a difficult situation, a person needs some kind of loophole, some kind of lacuna.
The historical novelist plays an important role. They get to re-tell history, selectively, and to personalise it for the reader. They are less constrained than the historian to subject headings and chosen themes.
History is so immense, however, that every historian must, herself, be selective. With every passing minute history is occurring on every square metre on the Earth and beyond. Most history is unrecorded and precious little that is recorded is retold by historians. Even the history we live through is subject to choices. As I write, I may have to choose between attacks in London and attacks in Kabul to read or care about. And, if I choose both, I must ignore other tragedies and other happenings, both comic and bizarre, which are occurring at the same time. Nonetheless, the historical novelist’s ability to choose is less constrained and can be more easily fitted to an artistic or normative agenda.
In the end, then, Ms. Kingsolver’s choice of historic events: progressive artistic Mexico; working class America desperate, down but not out and with the spirit to protest; and the oppressive, obsessive madness of McCarthyism (which changes in degree but never goes away, completely), though not necessarily more selective than the choices that historians make, every day, in their work, is more adapted to her artistic intentions.
Ms. Kingsolver has brought together events of which the reader may never have heard; events of which the reader may have been aware but never thought about; and events that the reader may have pondered but never in terms of real people experiencing hope and feeling joy and suffering pain and disappointment.
Ms. Kingsolver makes history a personal experience. Her characters live on the page such that the reader feels that she can reach out and touch. Harrison Shepherd tries to make himself invisible but we grow to know him through his experiences and his veiled reactions. As the archivist, Mrs. Brown, reveals herself, the reader feels the irony that perfuses her relationship with Mr. Shepherd. Not only do they not tell but they never guess at what the other feels.
L. was right to urge the book upon me. I had walked the streets of both Coyoacan and San Angel and was delighted to read more about them. But The Lacuna offers and delivers to the reader much more than a road trip to Mexico. It spans but thirty years and two countries. Yet it provides an understanding of events and of people that still resonate. It offers also an understanding of values and actions that are important in our time.
Ms. Kingsolver has that knack of filling the lacunae that permeate our understanding of ourselves and our world.
 See, for example,
https://old.hearsay.lancedev.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1929&Itemid=35; https://old.hearsay.lancedev.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1969&Itemid=35; https://old.hearsay.lancedev.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1998&Itemid=35;
 The old saw is that, if you have two Trotskyists in a room, you will have at least three factions.
 The place where Zelda Fitzgerald met her tragic death in a fire.