The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Entitled to joy rather than submission

The Lacuna By Barbara Kingsolver

Half-truths fizz through this epic tale of a man caught up in world events when he just wants to be left alone
Reviewed by Nina Lakhani

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Every few years, you read a book that makes everything else in life seem unimportant. The Lacuna is the first book in a long time that made me swap my bike for public transport, just so I could keep reading.

In her first novel for nine years, Barbara Kingsolver follows the epic journey of Harrison William Shepherd – a nobody who inadvertently becomes a somebody when all he wants is a safe place in which to be invisible. This is a tender, tragic, optimistic, sometimes depressing – but always compelling – story.

Shepherd is the son of a Mexican mother, who chases her dreams by chasing rich men, but always picks the one on the wrong side of the political divide. She leaves her son's American father, an unemotional, indifferent government employee, and runs off with a Mexican industrialist in search of the glamour she believes is rightfully hers. But they end up on Isla Pixol, an island off the east coast of Mexico, of which she says, "on this stupid island so far from everything, you have to yell three times before even Jesus Christ can hear you".

As she plots another escape with another man, her young son starts to record his world in a notebook, and words become his oxygen: without them he cannot breathe.

The boy moves between the United States and Mexico amid revolution and war, fascism and communism, as both countries search for new identities in the turbulent second quarter of the 20th century. His name is changed by whoever pays the bills, but the boy himself is shaped by the people he meets while trying to survive: the kitchen servant who shows him how to mix smooth pastry dough; the classmate in a Virginia military school who awakens his sexuality; and the celebrated artist Diego Rivera, who hires him to mix plaster for the huge murals he paints on the city's most important walls.

When school is no longer an option, Shepherd finds work and a home as a cook in the Rivera household, where he starts a lifelong friendship with the artist's wife, Frida Kahlo. With the arrival of the exiled Lev Trotsky and his wife into the house, Shepherd finds himself working as a translator for a man who is fighting for his life.

During these formative years of the 1930s, he discovers a passion for Aztec history that helps him understand the revolutionary beliefs held by his employers. Thousands of miles from his homeland, his children killed simply for being his children, Trotsky's unshakeable resolve makes Shepherd wonder: "Is that what makes a man a revolutionary? The belief he's entitled to joy rather than submission?"

Kingsolver's ability to make words dance off each page reawakened my passion for Mexico City, transporting me from the overcrowded Tube back to the vivid sights and smells of this complex city.

This is the first time Kingsolver has interwoven real lives and events into her fiction, but Shepherd's hopes belong with the love affairs, the work and politics of Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky, just as his fears find a natural home with America's post-war hatred of anything "un-American".

The story is told through Shepherd's diaries and letters as well as actual newspaper cuttings that reflect the selectively reported half-truths and lies used to justify hatred towards "them": first the fascists, then the Reds. And, of course, anyone can become one of "them".

Which Shepherd does, as his former life is used as evidence of subversion and his bestselling Aztec novels become recast as anti-American activities. The power of words to devastate means he must once again continue his journey.

The Lacuna unfolds more slowly than many of Kingsolver's previous books, but every word and twist has earned its place in this provocative and beautifully told story. The bestselling Poisonwood Bible won Kingsolver widespread critical acclaim; this book will only add to the praise.

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