The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Does Kingsolver ever write a short novel?

This is a novel that goes backwards and forwards, crossing the border between Mexico and America often during difficult times. Starting in the 30s with the art of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico, crossing when Trotsky who lived with them was stabbed and killed and then back into Mexico during the McCarthy witch-hunts. Politics and art are the twin engines that drive this novel.

Harrison Shepherd is the fictional character Kingsolver has inserted into the factual information as a conduit for the messages of the book. Born in America, he travels with his mother to Mexico on her never-ending chase after men who would keep her. At one point when they live near the sea, Harrison swims often and he finds a lacuna at low tide with a tunnel that brings him up deep in the jungle, far away from everything. Of course it brings to mind rebirth.

He starts to work for Rivera as a cook and then a plaster-maker for his murals and a sometime secretary for Lev Trotsky. He was present when Trotsky was stabbed and killed on the second attempt to take his life and never really got over the trauma of the event.

Diaries, news reports, journals and letters along with transcripts of official documents are used throughout the book to tell part of the story of this quiet man who found himself in the middle of events that would backfire on him. These documents are an important part of the book, showing us how we gather information and find the ‘truth’. There are several instances when misunderstandings occur – some with greater consequences than others. The book opens with Harrison and his mother hearing the ‘howlers’ in the jungle and thinking they are flesh-eating devils only to discover a bit later on that they are monkeys. Political biases are shown through actual news reports and personal views are revealed through journals.

They have the effect in the second half of the story of distancing the narrative which coupled with Shepherd unable to face people or go outside, fame does not sit comfortably with him, leaves us wanting more of him. But I think this is deliberate. As the country becomes more and more fearful, politicians do not want images that suggest all is not OK whether they are painted or written. Kingsolver has mentioned that the time after 9/11 was one of the starting points for the book. I think those that rule distance themselves from groups of people they blame at times like this and ‘clamp down’ and if you should fall into one of the groups that are persued, you need to keep your head down and distance yourself from the machinations of government.

Mixed identify is often a rich mine for novelists and so it is here. Shepherd is neither American or Mexican and so finds himself at a loss in both places on occasion. What Shepherd is good at, apart from writing, is friendship and one of the highlights in the book, for me, is his friendship with Kahlo. It is warm, witty and thoughtful and she is very helpful towards him as a writer at the start of his career. Their letters are a joy.

His relationship with his stenographer, Violet Brown, is another rich area of his life. Their discussions are again warm and full of wisdom, particularly from Violet and prevent Shepherd from completely fading away in his own life.

Lacuna can mean a missing piece and there are so many in this book. Harrison himself has a missing piece, some of his journals go missing, there’s the missing truth when the papers report on the first attempt to kill Trotsky and in the end Shepherd himself is missing. If there are missing pieces, can we ever know the truth?

During his McCarthy trial, Shepherd is asked what the purpose of art is.

“The purpose of art is to elevate the spirit or to pay the surgeon’s bill. Or both, really. It can help a a person remember or forget. If your house has no windows in it, you can hang a painting and have a view of a whole different country. If your spouse is homely, you can gaze at a lovely face and not get into trouble for it.”


The book comes full circle with the ‘howlers’ of the communist hunt and the newspapers as their voices and Shepherd loses everything – his readers, his lover and his small place that he had built in American society. They really could be read as flesh-eating monsters. And then he loses himself.

If you are interested in exploring how the truth is told or misused, you might also like Trust by Hernan Diaz.

Other books by the same author are: Demon Copperhead, Unsheltered, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,

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