The Rapidian

Book Review: The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver

Underwriting support from:

/Harper Collins

 Once, over a decade ago, I picked up Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver and promptly put it down after the first chapter. There was a plainness about it that I found uninteresting. Earlier this year I found the same book at a used bookstore and felt compelled to buy and read it, I greatly enjoyed it for its plainness.  As a reader I am often compelled by the use of language and find the story of secondary importance. In the case of Kingsolver’s plain writing I find myself newly invested in the tradition of storytelling. Yesterday I finished reading the advance copy of her latest book The Lacuna and was pleased by the book, both for her ability as a storyteller and her evolution as a writer.

The Lacuna is written as the journals of Harrison William Shepherd, starting at age twelve and ending at thirty-four.  Shepherd is half American, by an absentee father, and half Mexican by a capricious mother. It starts from the 1920s in Mexico and moves through McCarthy’s America of the late 40s. In the process the main character transforms from precocious youngster to Diego Rivera’s cook and Frida Kahlo’s confidant to Trotsky’s secretary to American Author to McCarthy’s Communist Pinko Bastard.

Reading you often feel dis-juncted, radical leaps are made and you are expected, and do, follow. One minute you are watching a young boy watching fish on a tropical reef the next he is a riot in Washington DC. The radical shifts do not loose you but continue you on the journey.  Shepherd is the terminal outsider looking in and in the end just wants to be left out of it. The first half of the book outlines a time of youth and innocence and the second half is adulthood and the stress of maturity. The voice of the journal changes as Shepherd ages, changes, and moves.

Jumping beyond the story Kingsolver’s message shines clear, we are obviously repeating history, and have for centuries and most likely will into eternity. Kingsolver lays out layers of history in which people follow leaders into their own demise. The Aztecs, The McCarthy-ites, and what are we now? Americans are terminally ready to jump on the bandwagon; unity may be our only strength. If we can all wear the same clothes and hate the same people then we are safe? Each time this unfolds a segment of society is alienated and sacrificed those who are different.

Kingsolver ties subtle notes into the writing from invasive species to urban sprawl to racial equality. The story ends in the late forties but she has laid the groundwork for what will challenge America for the next seventy years. She shows an America that in many ways has passed but is oddly present today. The book is more a critique on American culture and media than a story about a fictional man. The ending is ambiguously happy, which is often a request for the fictional author Shepherd in the book.  The Lacuna will be released by Harper Collins to bookstores on November 2nd.

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