The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver

Harper Collins, 2009. ISBN 0061927562.
Reviewed by Mary Marino-Strong
Posted on 01/10/2010
Review of the Month, February 2010

Fiction: Mainstream

Barbara Kingsolver gets the gold in my book. The Lacuna was brilliantly conceived and executed. The language and story are captivating, going where I hadn't expected—at least not for a long while. It can work very well as a great story that includes the role of art, artists and political perspective. But the meat of the story goes well beyond, is superbly prepared and presented with complex layering; the depth of its issues are unavoidable and provocative. Nothing is without meaning. It is an excellent example of the writing injunctive to show and not tell. Yet, in the latter portion there are a couple of places where I felt the character's voice became less distinct and the dialogue became an opportunity for the author to speak directly to the reader. Fortunately, that didn't last long.

The Lacuna is an opening, a portal, one of two primary metaphors etched subtly throughout. The young boy, Harrison Shepherd, must make his way through life's dangerous waters, tossed this way and that by his Mexican-born, vainly ambitious mother. His mother hauls young Shepherd off to Mexico to live out her fantasy of wealth and prestige on a jungle island estate, where the blood thirsty screech of howler monkeys awakens each day.

The boy longs for connection, but is more successful connecting with the exotic, richly textured places he inhabits than those who people them. He learns to keep to himself. Words become his ally—those he relishes in history books of the ancient Aztec, and those he writes.

The combination of happenstance and acute observation eventually put him in the path of larger-than-life historical figures: Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. When the story moves to the U.S., Kingsolver juxtaposes and layers the country's pre and post WWII concerns with Shepherd's Mexican experience and we witness history through another portal.

Many issues raised during the time spanned by The Lacuna—the late 1920's to the early 1950's—are parallel to issues of our time: individual, social and political integrity; individuality and independent thinking; the creation of fear to manipulate and control; the coercive role often played by the media, and the potentially corrosive force of public opinion, not unlike howler monkeys. I do it injustice if it sounds like a bad political-science class, yet these themes are central. The Lacuna is a stunning book of solid literary merit.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of seven works of fiction, including the novels The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams, and The Bean Trees, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her most recent work of nonfiction is the enormously influential bestseller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver's work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership at home and abroad. In 2000, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country's highest honor for service through the arts. She lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia. Visit her website.

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