Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna tells the life story of writer Harrison Shepherd via the journals and letters that his faithful personal assistant Violet Brown has carefully collated. Shepherd is a fictional character, but during the course of his adult life through the middle years of the twentieth century he finds himself at or near the centre of more than one significant historical event, and some of his experiences chime with those undergone by many writers in America in the late 1940s and 50s.
Shepherd has a colourful early life, spent for the main part in Mexico in the pre-war period, where he is brought by his impulsive Mexican mother after her marriage to his American father breaks down. He eventually befriends the communist-sympathizing painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and via them the fugitive Leon Trotsky, who is on the run from Stalin’s assassins. After the war he starts afresh in the USA, but certain authorities won’t allow him to settle into a quiet writer’s life.
This is a painstakingly constructed and researched novel, and I’m reluctant to go into much detail about specifics as much of the delight of it is in the gradual revelations of both the form and content of Shepherd’s personal writings. It took a while to come into focus for me – the first section of the book for example is written in a deliberately contrasting, more self-consciously literary, style to what follows, and the mysterious archivist notes that crop up between chapters are at first quite disorientating. This is a deliberate effect on the part of Kingsolver, and eventually the shape of the novel becomes clear, so please stick with it if you feel the first hundred pages or so don’t seem to be going anywhere. There are clues here that pay off handsomely by the end of the book.
In case the above makes this sound like a “difficult” novel I should add that Kingsolver generally writes in a clear and uncluttered style, and doesn’t let her structural devices get in the way of telling a good story. Ultimately this is an unusually involving read, and the 670 page length of it doesn’t feel in anyway gratuitous. Highly recommended.