The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

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The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Combining fictional characters with such real-life people as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Lev Trotsky, The Lacuna is a political novel set in Mexico and the USA in the 1940s and 1950s. Kingsolver's fictional creations prove equally fascinating as the real life cast in this terrific book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571252633

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Ten years ago, Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible revealed the grim politics in the Congo. The Lacuna has a similarly political theme, this time turning her focus on Mexico and the USA in the 1940s and 1950s.

I have to confess that I had to look up lacuna in the dictionary. For the benefit of anyone as dumb as me then, it means 'a gap or missing piece'. The title is apt on a number of levels. The book is told as if written by the fictional young boy and later writer Harrison Shepherd, initially though his diaries and later in newspaper articles and letters all compiled by the equally fictitious VB whose identity and relationship to the narrator are revealed later in the book.

Harrison grows up in Mexico with his flapper mother who is divorced from his American father who still lives in 'Gringolandia'. Always drawn to writing his experiences, after briefly attending a school in the US (where some parts of the diary are missing - one example of a lacuna) he returns to Mexico and encounters the muralists and political activists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo joining their household as a cook and mixer of plaster for Rivera. Harrison forms a connection with Frida (though unlike most of her male connections, Harrison is clearly gay and is more of a confidant to Frida) and through this connection gets to work with the exiled Lev Trotsky.

Later in the book more real life characters are introduced including the hunt for communist sympathisers led by J Edgar Hoover.

Another interpretation of the lacuna is some of the 'missing' history of the US - much of it political history that it would perhaps rather ignore. The first instance is when Harrison is at school and encounters the WWI veterans who camp in Washington DC to protest at being denied their bonus payments, and then onto the blindness to the actions of Trotsky's great adversary Stalin and later onto the communist paranoia that gripped the US. Kingsover brings her talent for political fiction onto both the US and Mexico in ways that are unsettling. While some of the articles quoted as press are indeed fictional, the reader gets a cold chill when they check some of the most scary ones and finds that they are in fact genuine - particularly in the tone taken against the Japanese in the mid 1940s - with not even the poor Japanese Beetle safe from Life magazine's xenophobia.

Once or twice the clash between fiction and reality is clunky - Harrison asks Trotsky so what really happened with Stalin - but mostly it's a fascinating read and reveals much about the effective birth of the modern (ie post war) American ideal as well as the nature of imperialism in Mexico and the relationship between art and politics.

I loved it and recommend it highly. It's a mark of great credit that the fictional characters are as interesting as the real ones - particularly given the cast of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky et al.

The Lacuna is justly long-listed for the 2010 Orange Prize. There are some excellent books on that list this year which are well worth checking out, including MJ Hyland's This is How, and of course Hilary Mantel's much praised Wolf Hall. From the same period we can recommend Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick.

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