Kingsolver triumphs

2009-11-25 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Lacuna

Barbara Kingsolver

Faber & Faber

I ADMIT I was never one of the many fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s last novel, The Poisonwood Bible, finding it disjointed and the ending unsatisfactory, but I have absolutely no ­reservations about The Lacuna. This is a stunningly good book.

Harrison Shepherd has a miserable childhood. His Mexican mother leaves his American father and, taking Harrison with her, heads off to Mexico with a wealthy lover. Harrison is lonely and unloved, and, as he slowly comes to an understanding of his indifferent world, he develops a cynicism that, in some degree, protects his inborn idealism. For a lonely child, it is the world under the sea, discovered by diving, that offers him an escape. It is here that he finds the “lacuna”, a gap in the rocks that will take him to the other side of the island, if he is brave enough to swim through. But while a gap may offer an escape, it carries enormous risks.

Harrison’s life moves on from his lonely Mexican island childhood. He returns to the United States, a country struggling with the effects of the Great Depression where ideas of the solidarity of workers give a brief glimmer of hope. Still a loner, still a romantic at heart, Harrison becomes a rootless young man, returning to Mexico and eventually to the household of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and to work for ­Leon Trotsky. Kingsolver paints an unforgettable portrait of these characters.

For Harrison, the murder of Trotsky brings a new terror, that of the rewards of fame. His employer dead, he returns to the U.S., now a very ­different world. World War 2 and its aftermath have changed the U.S. into a protectionist, consumerist society with a fear of outsiders. Harrison achieves fame with two novels, set in ancient Mexico, but the results of his success bring with them many of the things he has always dreaded. Only his secretary, Violet Brown, stands as an unlikely buffer between him and the world.

But not even she can hold the ­McCarthy years at bay. The cancer of suspicion is eating society, and Harrison the outsider becomes its victim. As at other turning points in his life, he needs another lacuna, ­another way to escape.

Kingsolver has created a haunting, wonderful novel, historically surefooted and psychologically compelling and written in beautiful prose. It is a long time since I have found myself quite so engrossed.

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