Book Review: The Lacuna

Book Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

So convincing is the lead character of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel that I found myself driven to Google to find out more – only to learn that Harrison Shepherd is, according to an interview with Kingsolver, the only truly fictional part of this book. She uses the lonely, eccentric and increasingly anthropophobic and agoraphobic Shepherd as a literary tool to tell the story of the socialist revolution, as it made its way via Mexico during the 1930s through the Second World War’s complicated two-step between the US and Russia and America’s rapid descent into the chauvinism of the McCathy era.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is available at Lobby Books for R220

Shepherd observes it all, trying to stay on the margins, but occasionally finding himself in the thick of it, first as cook and then secretary to artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the household that became the virtual headquarters of the left-wing movement in Mexico. When Kahlo sends him to the US on the pretext of overseeing her New York exhibition – thereby possibly saving him from the attention of both Stalin and US forces undercover in Mexico at the time ‑ he sets himself up as a writer in suburban Carolina, recording history from the point of the view of the antiheroes and ordinary folk.

His efforts to keep a low profile ‑ “writing books is a way to earn a living in my pyjamas” – backfire as his pot-boilers turn him into something of a literary celebrity and inevitably bring him to the attention of the Dies Committee, also known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The advice offered by his chain-smoking “S-shaped” Jewish lawyer reminds us of why Barbara Kingsolver is one of the greatest writers today. I know it’s cheating to quote extensively in a book review but her words are irresistible:

“Okay, do you know anything at all about this Dies Committee?”

“Years ago they contacted my boss to come and testify. This was in Mexico…”

“Your Mexican boss had something to say about un-American activities?”

“He wasn’t Mexican. He was in exile there, under threat of death from Stalin. So he had a lot to say about the man. This was before the war, when the US was getting very friendly with Stalin. Trotsky felt the US was being hoodwinked…”

“Trotsky.”

“Lev Trotsky. He was my boss.”

The cigarette ash fell to the floor. For a moment the lawyer himself seemed poised to follow it. He straightened, shook his head slowly, and reached for the letter on the desk. “I am going to give you a piece of advice. Don’t mention that you were once employed by the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

When Shepherd argues that Trotsky “hated Stalin even more than J Edgar Hover does”, his lawyer reminds him that “these subtleties are lost on the Dies Committee”.

It gets funnier, in places, and sadder, much sadder, in many too. It’s the story of a loner, who lives on the margins of society and of history, from where he observes it with sharp sadness and cynicism and records it with gentle irony. If you are interested in the development of communism at the time, this is a novel worth reading; if you are concerned about how ordinary people made their way through the political twists and turns of those years treat yourself to a memorable read.

Moira Levy, Idasa.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is available at Lobby Books for R220.

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One Response

  1. I just finished reading this book as I am a great Kingsolver fan. I so agree with you on all aspects of this novel. I also Googled Shepherd and learnt more about this intriguing literary character. Such an awesome period of history touched on in such a sensitive manner. Thanks for the review.

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