Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Redux #12 - "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

As soon as I finished reading The Poisonwood Bible, I quickly declared it my favorite book and went on to read the rest of Barbara Kingsolver's novels. I was pretty young when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and I've never gone back, afraid that a second reading would be disappointing. Yet Kingsolver has established herself as an interesting, dependable author--and one whom I seem to agree with politically as well as worldview-wise. I didn't know much about her latest novel, The Lacuna (2009), but I knew that no matter what the subject, I would be reading it.

The Lacuna is the story of a boy named Harrison Shepherd told entirely through journal/diary entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. The book begins when Harrison is twelve years old and his Mexican mother drags him back to Mexico. Harrison's mother was married to his father--a gringo government accountant type--in Washington D.C., but she left him to chase a series of less and less wealthy men throughout Mexico. Harrison's childhood is rather lonely and neglectful, but after spending a couple years in boarding school back in D.C., Harrison finds himself back in Mexico. Harrison finds occupation in the artist's household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which leads to a cook/secretarial position with the exiled Bolshevik Revolutionary leader, Lev Trotsky. Harrison eventually finds himself back in the United States where he writes a couple of fantastic and popular adventure novels about ancient Mexico, but his success is overshadowed when the McCarthy-era anti-communism paranoia starts a backlash against him.

I liked this book. The story was interesting, and the characters were likable and relatable. I never got bored reading it, and I like the way Kingsolver writes--simple and straightforward, but often with a beautiful, poetic quality. Focusing on many important historical events that occurred in Mexico and the United States from 1930-1950 added a lot to the story. It's one thing to read in a history book that "Stalin killed many of his adversaries," but it is quite another to read about the life and death struggle of the Trotsky family as they tried to defy Stalin and survive in Mexico. Kingsolver has a way of personalizing history. One could also draw some parallels between the media and government today with her portrayal of the media and the McCarthy anti-communism grip that held the country after the war. She highlights some historical points that many Americans would probably rather forget.

I'm afraid at this point, though, I want to hold Kingsolver up to a higher standard, and although I really enjoyed reading it, there's something about The Lacuna and Kingsolver's books in general that keep them from being great. There were a number of points where I didn't feel completely involved with the story--where it felt slightly manufactured. First, I like the idea of having the story told from the future with old diaries and writings, but many of the journal entries read more like the narrative of a story, complete with entire conversations quoted word for word. Kingsolver explains this away by saying that Shepherd is a writer and that's how he likes to record what's happened in his life, but it often just didn't ring true for me. Second, I was somewhat distracted by the historical context. It almost felt like two stories--the history of the time, and the story of a boy: I wanted both to go into more detail, and it was hard to tell which was more important. Sometimes poor Harrison just felt like a tool used to jump from one historically relevant event to the next. Finally, I sometimes felt that everything was a little too simplified: the media is bad, the purge of communism is bad, and Harrison Shepherd is the perfect voice of modern reason. And it's not that I disagree with Kingsolver, but some more detail, shades of grey, and subtlety might have added something.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed this book, and I would recommend reading it. The Lacuna is interesting, emotional, ambitious, and works on many levels.

1 comment:

BK said...

I agree with you, esp the lack of shades of gray.