The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Amazing and beautiful and sad and powerful…mostly. Stay with me and I’ll explain.

The narrator of The Lacuna is a man named Harrison Shepherd, a half American, half Mexican who spends his childhood and early adulthood in Mexico, and the rest of his life in America. The book is supposed to be his memoir, created from diary entries he kept throughout his life and interspersed with occasional notes from Violet Brown, his secretary and closest friend later in life.
In order to do this review justice, I’m going to divide the book into two parts. The first part takes place mostly in Mexico, and the second half in America. The first half is five stars. The second half…not so much.

The first half begins with Shepherd as a twelve-year-old boy, being brought to Mexico by his mother, who has left Shepherd’s father to live with a rich Mexican landowner. They live on an island surrounded by jungle, which gives the boy lots of chances to explore and gives Kingsolver lots of chances to prove that she cannot be beaten when it comes to writing about nature. Take this passage on snorkeling:

“It’s a perfect world down there, except for the one of them who can’t breathe water. He holds his nose, dangling from the silver ceiling like a great ugly puppet. Little hairs cover his arms like grass. He is pale, lit up by watery light on prickled boy skin, not the scaled slick silver merman he wants to be. The fish dart all around him and he feels lonely. He knows it is stupid to feel lonely because he isn’t a fish, but he does. And yet he stays there anyway, trapped in the below-life, wishing he could dwell in their city with that bright, liquid life flowing all around him. The glittering school pulls in at one side and pushes out at the other, a crowd of specks moving in and out like one great breathing creature. When a shadow comes along, the mass of fish darts instantly to its own center, imploding into a dense, safe core, and leaving the boy outside.”

When Sheperd grows up it just get better, because he goes to work as a cook for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. At first I was worried because all I knew about these two painters was what I learned from the movie Frida, but luckily that’s all you really need. Then Trotsky comes along and Shepherd becomes one of his secretaries, and it’s all awesome and beautiful and dramatic and then of course everything goes to hell and Shepherd goes back to the United States. And thus begins Part 2.

I was much less enamored of the second half for several reasons – some are Kingsolver’s fault, and some are not. First, the second half cannot possibly measure up to the first half because our narrator isn’t in Mexico anymore. Trotsky and Rivera and Kahlo and the Aztec cities are replaced by Violet Brown and 1940’s America and Ashville North Carolina. It’s not Kingsolver’s fault that her second setting couldn’t compete with her first; nor is it her fault that she couldn’t avoid writing about the Communist Hearings that were going on at the time. As soon as those were first mentioned, I knew what was coming. I mean, our narrator spent years living with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leo frigging Trotsky and I’m supposed to be surprised when the feds come knocking?

The story of the Red Scare in America can only be told so many ways: McCarthy bad, innocent accused good, Constitutional rights being ignored, blah blah blah. It is a tired story, and Kingsolver doesn’t give us anything particularly new. Also Kingsolver’s fault is the constant, almost insistent use of vintage slang. First it was the narrator’s mother, which was understandable – she was always trying to appear young, so it makes sense that she would jump on every fad phrase she could. But then Kingsolver does it again: there’s a minor character in the second half who cannot get through even one sentence without busting out some obnoxious slang word or phrase, and it was like claws on a blackboard every time the character appeared.

But I assure you, all of this dragging-on has a purpose: Kingsolver has to spend all that time establishing the narrator’s relationship with Violet Brown and telling us every little thing he went through in America so we can get to the end. And oh, what an ending it is. I won’t give anything away – I’ll just tell you that Kingsolver pulls it all together and makes the last 300 pages completely worth it, and gave me a reason to give this book four stars instead of three.

“His life was a marvel, whether he knew that or didn’t. His way of seeing a cat in a cold wind, or skeletons pressed flat in the dust. A dead fish thrown in a slop pail. He could cry for about anything and give it a decent burial. He was so afraid of living, yet live he did. That’s a monument. He wrote about those who came before, giving flesh to their cares. He was driven to it.”

Verdict: four out of five stars

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