The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver (New York: Harper Collins, 2009. 507pp)

Barbara Kingsolver (b. 1955) is an American novelist and essayist. Her best known works are The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. All of her published books have been on The New York Times bestseller list, and she has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award.


Expectations


Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has often been described as a book club classic. Ten years later, Barbara Kingsolver has released The Lacuna. As a piece of historical fiction, I expected something behemoth, something filled with wonder, something akin to the masterpiece that is The Poisonwood Bible. The Lacuna came close, but it left something behind for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high based on Kingsolver’s past.

A Nobody in the Presence of Somebodies


Photo by Fisita

The Lacuna documents the journey of a young boy, Harrison William Shepherd from 1929 to 1951. When we first meet him at twelve years of age, he’s living on a hacienda with his over-dramatic mother who is a gold-digger, to say the least. Ever on the prowl for a richer husband, she is never content. His father is American, and is the dull-witted type we’ve come to know in sitcoms like The Simpsons or Family Guy.

Harrison is an accidental onlooker to some important history—he runs into Frida Kahlo at a market, and returns home with her to help her with his baking skills. Frida’s husband is the famed muralist, Diego Rivera, and their marriage is somewhat volatile. Soon, Harrison becomes a baker and typist for the household, leaving his own capricious home behind.

“It was like mixing the flour for pan dulce: how could it be so different? The powder they called cal has the same fine grind, floating up in white clouds around the boys when they dumped bags of it into the mixing buckets. Their eyelashes and the backs of their hands were white, and the edges of their nostrils, from breathing it. They were dumping powder into water, not the other way around” (71).

Using his baking skills, Harrison begins mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals. Soon after  establishing himself as a plaster mixer, who joins the household? None other than communist Leon Trotsky. If you know your history, Trotsky finds an untimely end by one of Stalin’s agents. Harrison witnesses the murder. Throughout all the history-in-the-making scenarios of which Harrison is a part, he keeps a journal. His journal (you guessed it) becomes the novel, The Lacuna, which he tries to publish as an adult later in the book.

Disappointment


Photo by Luiz Fernando

Now comes the point where my disappointment surfaces. I completely understand Kingsolver’s motive in wanting a fictional “onlooker” to be the narrator and “writer” of the novel. However, the experiences of a fictional, shy, boring-as-watching-paint-dry, loner child are hard to merge with the experiences of famed artists and communist leaders. 

Should the novel have utilized the famous artists as main characters, perhaps even narrators, I would have found much more enjoyment in the novel. Harrison is frankly too dull to tell the tale. Moreover, juxtaposed against such vibrant, larger-than-life characters of history past, he fades into the background.

Though it would be easy to completely toss Harrison into the literary garbage can, he does supply some wonderful thoughts on connecting history. Through his eyes, we see richly imagined history in an epoch where circumstances and people were viewed in black and white. Kahlo was known to be unstable bi-sexual, and her husband a womanizer. As Harrison says, 

“What we end up calling history is a kind of knife, slicing down through time. A few people are hard enough to bend its edge. But most won’t even stand close to the blade. I’m one of those. We don’t bend anything” (360).

The point Kingsolver is trying to make is that the most unimportant people do affect history. Harrison Shepherd assuredly did make an impact (albeit fictitious) in the lives of the painters and communist leader. However, I have to agree with Harrison; he is unimportant and boring. He didn’t stand close to the blade from my perspective. 

While The Lacuna does recount some important history with larger than life people, perhaps the vessel telling the story could have had a bit more of a commanding presence. Harrison falls into the shadows. 
If you enjoy historical fiction, I still highly recommend this novel as it is illuminating to say the least. But, if you like compelling main characters, perhaps it’s best to try something else.Verdict: 3 out of 5
What do you think? Does Harrison really fall into the background? Did you enjoy the history present within the novel? Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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