By Barbara KingsolverHarper Perennia, 544 pages, $16.99
In Barbara Kingsolver’s rich new novel "The Lacuna," the artist Frida Kahlo remarks that she would like to think she is being “pulled through history by something more than the force of gravity.” The fictional character she is talking with quips that gravity must be winning because Frida is so short, but the renowned Mexican surrealist insists that she is serious. Artists are idealists, she says vehemently, and her friend should be careful not to let his heart go “cold” with cynicism.
"The Lacuna" is an impassioned, 507-page search for a force to carry its characters through history. The title means gap or hole in Spanish, though it is not generally used in daily Mexican parlance. In the book, though, the title works well, both as a physical touchstone--an underwater treasure cave discovered by the main narrator—and as an apt allegory for the book. 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. In addition to Kahlo, the ambitious cast includes artist Diego Rivera and Marxist, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
The narrator of these flamboyant personalities is Harrison William Shepherd, a bicultural young writer who works in the Kahlo-Rivera’s Coyoacán household. 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. They are carried on both in-person and later, in letters.
Politics and art dominate the novel, and their overt, unapologetic connection is refreshing. At times, though, Kingsolver presents some of the characters’ ideological orientations as foregone conclusions. Kahlo, Rivera, Trotsky and some of the minor characters come to us with well-established sensibilities. Though we later learn of Rivera’s rift with Trotsky and on-again-of-again connection to the Communist Party, we don’t witness the entire process that leads to it. Fortunately, readers are privy to the evolution of young Shepherd’s political consciousness, which is largely shaped by his close relationships not only with the artists but with his fellow household staff.
When Shepherd moves on as an adult to write popular historical romances and adventure tales, Kingsolver gently mocks them in fictional reviews and fan letters, but also intimates that most readers do not mind sweep and intrigue along with their timelines. Fiction might even be the best way to narrate history, Shepherd also implies; as he is fond of saying, “the most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.”
Kingsolver, author of the bestselling nonfiction book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" and novel "The Poisonwood Bible", is not afraid of placing her characters (and herself) in charged settings and political situations. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the author and her family recount the year they spent on an Appalachia farm growing and eating only locally produced food. In "The Poisonwood Bible," Kingsolver focuses on the family of an American Baptist missionary who moved his family to the Congo in 1959.
Now, in her newest book, Kingsolver shuttles Shepherd between his two homelands of America and Mexico, to witness significant events as well as discover gaps not just between the two countries but within them. As a boy he is dragged from the United States to Mexico by Salomé, his unsympathetic, Mexican-born mother who is chasing a wealthy oil executive.
On Isla Pixol, the island where he and his mother first land, Shepherd finds rare solace swimming in a hidden underwater cave. To explore it, he learns to monitor the tides and hold his breath for increasing periods of time. Soon he discovers bones in the lacuna as well as other suspected treasures. Shepherd cannot continue to plumb its depths, however; his mother soon yanks him to Mexico City, where a married boyfriend has agreed to finance an apartment, a “casa chica." Desperate and impoverished Mexicans fill the streets and public schools, but the situation also leads Shepherd ultimately to the high-octane household of Kahlo, Rivera, and later, Trotsky and his wife.
On its own, the tense, two-year period of harboring Trotsky and his wife in the taciturn artists’ house elicits enough drama for an explosive play. For Kingsolver, it is the epicenter of a longer, more complex story.
All the main characters suffer for their Communist and Marxist allegiances--Trotsky, like much of his family before him, is savagely murdered and Kahlo flees to the United States. Shepherd, still a young man, manages to find a way out of Mexico as guardian or “shepherd” of some of Kahlo’s paintings, but he cannot evade his Red stain. Despite his later success as a writer, and even his future job as an art curator for the federal government, he is blacklisted in 1948. Kingsolver includes a sad and sometimes grimly funny transcript from Shepherd’s hearing with the House’s subcommittee on Un-American Activities.
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. In one pivotal scene, a teenaged Shepherd is back home in D.C. in 1932, where he witnesses the Bonus Army sit-in and march when homeless WWI veterans were literally bulldozed by the military while waiting for promised cash pay-outs. The scenes are devastating and engrossing on their own, but it takes a quick narrative link to drive home the connection for Shepherd.
After the siege, Shepherd, who had visited the Bonus Army with a school friend, observes, “The Bonus Army families had crops planted in their camp…They made the encampment look like Mexico. A real village, where people might live and eat. Hungry kids were waiting for those almost-ready ears—after months of porridge, sweet corn roasted in the coals. To think of MacArthur’s horses trampling it on purpose…”
Few of the characters appear to find their true homelands in which their politics and art are in harmony. Their struggle to find and render societal truths brands them as disloyal to the very countries they are trying valiantly to understand. As Shepherd’s loyal secretary from Asheville, North Carolina, poignantly asks her employer, “How can it be un-American to paint a picture of sadness?”
Carolyn Alessio was a 2008 literature fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the editor of a bilingual anthology of Guatemalan children's poetry, and her new short story set during the auto-coup of 1993 Guatemala appears in the November issue of World Literature Today.