Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Hardcover: 528 pages
• Publisher: Harper, 2009
• Price: $26.99
• ISBN-10: 0060852577
With each book that I’ve read by Barbara Kingsolver, whether fiction or nonfiction, it becomes increasingly established that I am a standing-ovation fan. She ranks up among my top three most admired. This is an author who has the skill to combine excellent storytelling with excellent literary artistry.
The Lacuna is an intricate blend of history and fiction. Kingsolver incorporates historical fact, drops in actual newspaper and magazine clippings from the time period of 1929 to 1951. It is a time when World War II breaks wide open, and a dark and shameful period of McCarthyism—nationwide paranoia of seeing red(s) everywhere—sweeps across the United States, destroying innocent lives in its wake.
Harrison William Shepherd is a fictional character, but he lives among those whose names we know from history: Leon Trotsky, an exiled socialist leader, and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, husband and wife artists. The story opens in Mexico, where the exiled political leader is in hiding from Soviet assassins in the residence of the Mexican artists, but Harrison is yet a boy, born in the States of an American father and a Mexican mother but now living in something of a Mexican jungle. So begins his life story, written in the form of journals and letters:
“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”
And with that, we understand we are now in the hands of a literary master, falling as if through a lacuna—an opening or portal, a missing part, a vacuum—into her imagination, the world she creates for us and into which she now invites us to enter. The most important story, her character tells us, is told in what is missing.
It begins and ends with the howling of monkeys. Animals or humans, it’s all the same, as one howl invites another, and none of it makes much sense. Harrison Shepherd begins his journey as a boy who works whatever task is asked of him, a housekeeper, a cook, an errand runner, a mixer of plaster, but his life becomes twisted in danger caused by the occasional human howl born of paranoia. Assassins kill Trotsky, newspapers filing false reports and failing to check facts, or not caring to—rumors are spread and death can, and does, result.
If Harrison returns to the States to eventually become a famous author, writing potboilers based on Aztec history, the human howlers follow him, surfacing as the monkeys of McCarthyism. Through Harrison’s wondrously articulate letters and journals, alongside eyebrow-raising actual clippings, we see how a nation hits bottom, allowing irrational fears to spread like disease. The common mind of the masses can indeed be a mucky thing to behold, and if there is reason left anywhere, fear keeps it silenced.
Living a quiet, if not reclusive, life in Asheville, North Carolina, Harrison would seem to be one who can escape that madness. He stays out of the public eye as much as any bestselling author can, his most intimate confidante a hired stenographer, Violet Brown. Yet to achieve greatness in any field invites lesser minds to a desire to destroy. False rumors are lifted to accusations, accusations to persecution, and there is no rational defense when one’s opponent refuses to deal with rationality.
Kingsolver has written a powerful statement in this blend of story and life. She never preaches, yet her message is clear, clear enough to make the reader want to howl, yet gracious and beautiful enough, that the last page is turned in silence and awe.
The author has published seven novels, as well as collections of poetry, essays and creative nonfiction. She has been translated into more than 20 languages and has earned many literary awards. Kingsolver lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.