The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


Kingsolver´s earlier work The Poisonwood Bible, led me to investigate the horrifying history of the Belgian Congo, and portrayed some of the difficulties that westerners have in trying to understand Africa in its post-imperial status. It was a revelation.


I had expected something equally powerful in The Lacuna, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2010. The cover might have discouraged me. What sort of exciting story can be constructed around Lacuna, a posh word for a gap? The cover also shows Bestselling author of The Poisonwood Bible. Even as a literary agent, I should prefer Author of bestselling The Poisonwood Bible. I started this book with misgiving.


The characters portrayed in this book include Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Joe McCarthy and Leon Trotsky, names that evoke themes of passion, murder, politics, witch hunts, adultery. It would seem that this book could scarcely fail to excite. But what we actually get is ironically a lacuna - such a hiatus in the interpretion of events that it is difficult to engage with and believe in the story.


We begin with a number of lacunae. There is the gap left by a missing father and gaps in the sentences spoken by the mother. Salomé (the protaganist´s mother) speaks in wisecracks and short sentences. Maybe the author is trying to convey the patois of contemporary USA and Salomé´s shallow character but comments such as no use crying over a spilt father are forced and unattractive; one´s sympathy is immediately with the missing father. We have more lacunae in the disjointed nature of the work - interruptions in the guise of archivist´s missing notes and quick changes of scenery; no idea is followed through enough detail to allow the reader to appreciate the sense of time and place necessary for such characters to display their greatness.


The hero of the book, Harrison Shepherd, suffers from a mother who does not behave like a mother and very quickly Harrison is packed off to his father, who immediately then packs him off to school. Harrison is unwanted and knows it: what kind of orphan has two living parents? The book is a story of Harrison´s short drifting life.


The next lacuna mentioned in the book is the name of a volcanic cave structure reached by means of an underwater tunnel. Harrison is fascinated by the underwater landscapes, floating on the sea is like flying: looking down on the city of fishes, watching them do their shopping. In some piscatorial Harrods, no doubt. As he gazes at the world through the water and practises holding his breath, his back becomes horribly sun-burned. In a lung-bursting effort, Harrison swims through the tunnel and into a magnificent cave that was used as a place of worship by the Aztecs. It is here that Harrison gets his inspiration for the best selling books he will write.


In the kitchen, Harrison makes cakes with sophisticated white flour rather than maize flour and he is able to make such good plaster that he gets a job with the wonderful painter and philanderer Diego Rivera, who is painting huge murals of Mexican history. When Harrison first sees Frida Kahlo she is out shopping and he offers to help. He soon becomes friendly with her. We learn about the Rivera/Kahlo menage - separate houses connected by a bridge; we learn a little about their habits, she cleans her own brushes and knives, a hundred times tidier than the Painter, who throws everything on the floor and stomps out in his cowboy boots; we find out about their infidelities. We do not learn about the depth of experience and passion that Rivera and Kahlo shared. They burn with a desire to express their emotions; their paintings are shocking and are meant to shock.


When Lev Trotsky arrives to live in the Kahlo/Rivera household you would expect fireworks, both intellectual and emotional. The actual description of this potentially explosive menage à trois is more like a damp squib but there are one or two surprises in store. The fact that our hero is hounded by the McCarthy Communist witch hunt and that he chooses to commit suicide is not a surprise. He returns to the watery lacuna of his youth, mourned by his archivist. One feels that it was a waste of time him being born and that a wonderful opportunity to paint a powerful and passionate story has been wasted. Instead of the passion, both personal and political, which governed the lives of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky and even McCarthy, we have been served this limp-wristed shrimp of a Harrison Shepherd.


The blurb on the back of the book shows that the Lacuna is the unspeakable breach between truth and public presumption. The real Lacuna is between our expectations for fireworks in this story and the damp squib it turns out to be.