13 May 2013

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

     I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver along with the rest of my Library Book Club for the month of April. I actually was hosting a friend from my old college at the time, so I didn’t attend the meeting. I do like to keep up with what the club is reading so I was able to finish this title not too long ago.
     Barbara Kingsolver, if the name rings a bell, is the author of the 1998 bestselling novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I took a contemporary literature class in college (I wasn’t a fan, but it was helpful in knowing more about today’s literature, she admits grudgingly) and we were given a list of novels to write a paper on. We all go to choose our own and I actually chose Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Ask me what my paper was about? I have no idea. Ask me what the novel was about? I think, a war? As you can see Ms. Hazzard left a huge impression. I did take note of Ms. Kingsolver’s book and told myself I’d like to read it. Now, don’t get too excited about the word “bible.” She’s not a Christian. In fact, I have every reason to believe it’s one of those, “Oh-behold-another-hypocritical-pastor” novels. But I somewhat like interacting with those novels because I know other people are reading them, and I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve read them. Here’s why I disagree.” More recently, the name came up again in a list compiled by Leland Ryken in his new study on Pastors in the Classics. I’ve been trying to read a lot of the books on that list, and so when Ms. Kingsolver’s name came up in my book club I was pretty excited. Even though this was a different novel.
     Barbara Kingsolver is a talented writer. No dispute. She has eccentric and beautiful ways of crafting her books sentence by lovely sentence. I often fall for books based on the beauty of the language. She’s one of those people who can take something you feel and speak about it in a way that makes you say, “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” Her powers of description and storytelling were absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t overstate how wonderful this book was.
     However (of course there has to be a however), the main character is a homosexual. Now, this neither adds nor takes away from the story. In fact, I think Ms. Kingsolver included it for the same reason Mr. Young portrayed "god in his unfortunately best selling book The Shack, as an African-American woman. Basically to be hip/edgy/relevant/cool, whatever you want to call it. (Though it has been suggested she used his orientation as a way to get him out of military service later on. Homosexuality was considered a mental deficiency and as such those who were weren't accepted for military service) I actually thought it was sort of a disappointment considering how fabulous this story is, that she felt like she had to be cool and shock the puritanical reading public (as if!) with a homosexual protagonist. The nice thing is, Ms. Kingsolver is very discreet. There are a few intimate interactions between the protagonist and another man, but you just barely get the idea of what is going on. In fact, it took me actually a hefty way into the book to realize that he wasn’t attracted to women. So, hats off to that. I guess if you must have sex scenes, at least be somewhat discreet. The puritanical reading public (or at least this corner of it) really appreciates that. So, I’m not kidding when I say his orientation neither adds to nor takes away from the story.
     The story is about Harrison Shepherd whose father was American and whose mother is Mexican. He was raised mainly in Mexico, went to school in America, worked back in Mexico, and ended up a writer in Cold War era America. Being outside the culture of communism v. anticommunism, his insight into things like J. Edgar Hoover and patriotism and HUAC were spellbinding. During his time in Mexico, he ends up a cook in the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo-Rivera (yes, the real life artists) who eventually take in the exiled Leon Trotsky (yes, the real life leader of the Bolshevik revolution). So, eventually, his past catches up with him as the anticommunist furor in America heats up. Mr. Shepherd begins with a great love for America and ends feeling betrayed, but you also don’t feel like you are reading a story set up to bash America (which I feel like is a bit overly popular for my taste).
     The book opens with Harrison as a young boy in Mexico, interested in a nearby underwater lacuna, which basically means gap or emptiness. He even goes far enough to get through the gap into the other side despite warnings that he might drown, but for the rest of his life there are holes in the story of his life that never get entirely filled in due to fear and self-censorship. This personal experience is widened in mid century America, as fear and censorship begins to control the general public arena.
     Like some of the best stories, it's a love story. An ultimately platonic (see orientation) relationship between Harrison Shepherd and his secretary Violent Brown plays a big role in the second half of the book. Ms. Brown urges Harrison to write the story of his life. She is his best friend and main encourager, eventually sacrificing her own reputation to see him succeed. She is, in my opinion, the steadying influence and voice of reason throughout the novel. She's also introduced at the beginning as the person compiling the notes and diary entries that comprise Mr. Shepherd's life, so it makes sense that she is the person bringing everything in order. The affection that grows between them is confused, but it's actually very touching.  
     This is a well crafted story that combines themes of friendship, love, patriotism, and the power of words. Also, I cried at the end. Books that move me that much are winners in my estimation. So, I actually do recommend this. Yes, I surprised myself, but as long as you take the drawback into account, I think this is a really powerful and beautiful story, by a talented author. I actually am even more excited to read The Poisonwood Bible as a result.
     On an interesting personal note, when I was avisiting Boyfriend last month I met a friend of his who had come up to see an exhibit at the closest big art museum by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I actually hadn't heard of them until she was talking about them. Then I began this book and I was about halfway through the part of the story that was about them, before I realized that it was THAT Diego and Frida. 


Diary of an Autodidact said...

Haven't read an Kingsolver, but maybe I should.

I'm hoping the Rivera/Kahlo exhibit makes it to my neck of the woods.

Emmy D said...

Well, I've been wondering if a Kingsolver should make its way onto my to-read list, and I'm still not sure. But I am curious to learn more about Rivera and Kahlo's history.