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08 Nov, 2009

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver | Book review

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel suffers from a surfeit of history, says Alice O’Keeffe

Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible is often described as a “book club classic” – a double-edged compliment that somehow implies it is not weighty enough to be taken seriously by anyone other than earnest, middle-aged women. A devastating, brilliantly written account of the impact of colonialism on the Congo as seen through the eyes of the wife and daughters of an American missionary, the novel was a bestseller both here and in the US, but never won the critical recognition it deserved.

There is something almost parodically right-on about Kingsolver’s choice of subject matter, which is perhaps what keeps her confined to the “book club” category. Her work has tackled subjects such as women in the Arizona mine strike of 1983 (Holding the Line), sustainable food production (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral) and Native American rights (Pigs in Heaven).

The Lacuna, her first novel for 10 years, takes in the Mexican revolution, the exile of Trotsky in Mexico City, the First World War and the communist witch-hunts in 1950s America. It is an admirably ambitious work spanning a fascinating period of history, but it lacks the strong characterisation that made The Poisonwood Bible such a success.

The story is told by Harrison Shepherd, an apparently unremarkable half-American, half-Mexican boy born to a peripatetic mother in 1920s rural Mexico. Following a chance encounter in a marketplace with “an Azteca queen with ferocious black eyes” – Frida Kahlo – he becomes a domestic servant in the unruly household the artist shares with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, who is busy bringing about Mexico’s cultural revolution. This is Shepherd’s first step into the frontline of history – and there he stays, becoming secretary first to Rivera and then to his guest, the exiled Leon Trotsky. All the while, he records the daily goings-on in a series of journals.

Kingsolver – or, rather, Shepherd – sketches the various outlandish personalities in the Kahlo-Rivera household: Frida, with her ruffled skirts and filthy tongue concealing a tragic array of physical and mental ailments; Diego, a “big toad” who compulsively cheats on her. Trotsky, or “Lev” as he is called here, emerges as a twinkly, saint-like figure driven by nothing more controversial than his love for humanity. (No sign here of the figure whom Robert Service described in his recent biography as competing with Stalin “for the status of the most brutal commissar”.)

The question that hovers in the reader’s mind, however, is what Shepherd’s narration brings to the story. Until far too late in the book, he has no compelling individual voice, acting purely as a cipher for the other, non-fictional characters. His presence at multiple key moments in 20th-century history – the Bonus marchers of 1932, the assassination of Trotsky – seems contrived, and even in the sections about his boyhood he remains curiously blank. It is only in the final chapters, when Shepherd becomes the centre of the action, that he emerges as a real personality.

This lack of a convincing narrator leaves The Lacuna rather rootless. While The Poisonwood Bible was equally ambitious in scope, it kept its focus small and tight. The big picture – the destruction of Africa under colonialism – was slowly revealed through the lives of the central characters; this is what gave the book its emotional impact and its drive. In The Lacuna, Kingsolver allows history to dictate the characters, rather than the other way around. The brain is engaged by this account of a tumultuous period in our recent past, but the heart remains largely untouched.

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