How can the experiences of a fictional loner merge with those of larger-than-life figures who played a pivotal role in world politics? And what can readers learn from their intersection? Those are the questions answered by this dazzling novel, which plunges into Shepherd’s notebooks to dredge up not only the perceptions they conceal but also a history larger than his own, touching on everything from Trotskyism, Stalinism and the Red scare to racism, mass hysteria and the media’s intrusion into personal and national affair … The Lacuna can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices. But the fuller value of Kingsolver’s novel lies in its call to conscience and connection. She has mined Shepherd’s richly imagined history to create a tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost past recognition.
Kingsolver neatly weaves this quiet, watchful man through tumultuous events that rocked two countries, and one of the most impressive feats of The Lacuna is how convincingly she tracks his developing voice, from when he's a sensitive teenager in 1929 until he becomes a national celebrity in the early 1950s … A ‘permanent foreigner,’ not at home in the United States or Mexico and aware that his budding homosexuality must not be expressed, young Shepherd quickly develops an outsider's detached perspective, tinged with loneliness. He has a sharp eye for the beauty of Mexico, its lush tropics and its colorful towns, and Kingsolver convincingly positions him near some of the era's larger-than-life figure.
Kingsolver's exploration (through all five senses) of Mexican and American geographies, weather, people, food, cultures, politics, languages and era-bound events - Hoover through World War II, Truman, Nagasaki - is masterful, and a reader receives the great gift of entering not one but several worlds. In the bargain, Kingsolver mulls the lonely rhythms of an artist's life … The Lacuna is a supremely ambitious work: a dense picaresque, glitteringly alive (particularly in the Mexico sections). Its lone flaw is the occasional pong of polemic … Kingsolver rescues her epic with an intricate, moving, deeply satisfying close, against the landscape she conveys best. The final pages haunt me still.
After the novel’s first few pages, Harrison tells his own story; he is a diarist and letter writer, a recorder of events and a novelist, a translator and amanuensis … Early in the novel, his journal entries feel somewhat like Mexican history served light; occasionally they read like guidebooks. But through it all, those around him share their feelings, admire his cooking, and take him along on trysts … We want to care about Harrison; his mother is wild and crazy, he basically raises himself, he is an avaricious but barely schooled reader. Still, the reader may find that Harrison’s inherent privacy simply makes him disengaged and unattractive. For sure he is caught in his own personal lacuna, and we are left to wonder if he has the strength to fight off the sharks that pursue him.
Kingsolver keenly explores the links between big historical events and individual lives, and at its best, as in The Poisonwood Bible, her writing moves easily between the two … Every detail of every decade is faithfully chronicled and recorded, rather than evoked...The result is a relentless pop-cultural history lesson … Curiously, despite his time in Mexico with famous communists, we get little sense of his own politics, nor any real emotional response concerning his closet homosexuality … We do not get under the skin of history. The intention is admirable but the politics are naïve. Everything is black and white.
A serious problem with The Lacuna is telegraphed in its striking title. ‘Lacuna’ refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character … Kingsolver's aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of history, the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key players. As Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, ‘Greatness is very boring.’ The politically incorrect truth is, however, that ordinariness oftentimes is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point of view isn't all that illuminating.
[The Lacuna] probes, with only partial success, the source of the vexed historical relationship between art and politics in the United States, as well as the gap between a life lived and a life reported … The story comes to us in the elusive form of diaries and memoirs, letters and press cuttings. Locked for 50 years in a bank vault until all parties are dead, these fragments were saved by the novelist's stenographer, Violet Brown, from his despairing wish that they be burned … The novel's later sections are marred by overstated irony, the dialogue too often staged between characters who agree, making for an authorial soapbox. More satisfying is an unexpectedly touching coda.
The gap in Harrison William Shepherd’s personal narrative is big enough for a grown man to swim through. ‘The most important part of the story is the piece you don’t know,’ he is fond of saying. That piece, as author Barbara Kingsolver helpfully explains, is known as a lacuna … The national identities of Mexico and America are forged as Shepherd’s life is narrated through a compilation of journal entries, excerpts from memoirs, newspaper clippings – both real and fake – congressional testimony, and notes from Shepherd’s archivist … Kingsolver’s writing doesn’t lose any of its skill in the last section of the novel. But Shepherd himself is, of emotional necessity, so tightly buttoned down that some of the color drains away when his memoirs focus more directly on himself. The loss of Kahlo’s presence is keenly felt.
After some lyrical but unconvincing early scenes, the first half of the novel builds to page-turning tension. Fiction based on the lives of the famous has a special kind of suspense: One recalls more or less what has to happen (a Stalinist agent will hack the revolutionary's skull with an ice ax) but not the exact timing, or the details (how the killer weaseled his way past walls and guards into the Riveras' trust), or the motivations, the hopes and fears, the devastation of those touched by the murder. That is the novelist's job … For all of Violet's spunk and Shepherd's wryness, The Lacuna paints a sad and steady downward spiral. Tragedy rubs up against maudlin. And the title? Lacuna is Latin for a thing missing. Certainly there is no dearth of symbolic openings, holes and gaps – including a lost notebook and Shepherd's scarcely explored homosexuality – scattered throughout. But there is no enigma.
Kingsolver brings historical and imagined characters together in the 1930s and 40s Mexico and the United States in an attempt to achieve social, political and creative freedom … Though Shepherd attempts to remain a mute household servant who responds only in his journals, he increasingly becomes drawn into conversations with Kahlo. These disarming repartees, both playful and heartbreaking, are the soul of the novel … Politics and art dominate the novel, and their overt, unapologetic connection is refreshing … Though The Lacuna makes wide turns and detours at times, occasionally causing the reader to wish for GPS, Kingsolver’s careful plotting usually comes to the rescue.
The term lacuna refers to a gap, or a missing piece of information. But in using this as a literary conceit, Kingsolver leaves no holes in a carefully woven plot. This ambitious new work bridges two continents, two cultures, two political ideologies and two tumultuous decades … [Harrison’s] journal entries, combined with newspaper clippings and letters sent to Kahlo and others, become the backbone of The Lacuna. Readers who have been browbeaten by 21st-century demands for bullet-point brevity and Twitter succinctness will luxuriate in the courtliness and languid wit of the epistolary portions of this book … The Lacuna probes mid-20th-century America's uses and abuses of language, media and power. It may be historical fiction, but readers will feel the sting of connection between then and now.
In this sprawling story, Kingsolver does what she does best – craft characters whose fates are shaped by culture and era – better than she's done before … Kingsolver does an admirable job of turning Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky into fictional characters you can believe in, thus bypassing the downfall of many historical novels … Kingsolver shows how the McCarthy era was a toxic time in history without saying as much, simply by showing how those who embraced the hysteria, from the press to longtime neighbors, ruin the life of one man by twisting his words and misinterpreting his dreams. The parallels to modern America, where untruths, nonsense and trivia often serve as our culture's bread and butter, are painfully obvious.
Set in leftist Mexico in the 1930s and the United States in the ’40s and ’50s, the novel is a compilation of diary entries, newspaper clippings (real and fictional), snippets of memoirs, letters and archivist’s commentary, all concerning Harrison Shepherd … When Harrison returns to the States, however, the novel wilts. His character never evolves, and the dialogue grows increasingly polemic as his story becomes a case study of the postwar anticommunist witch-hunt … A richly satisfying portrait of Mexico gives way to a preachy, padded and predictable chronicle of Red Scare America.