Barbara Kingsolver magnificently re-creates 1930s Mexico City in her first novel in nine years.
Everyone has plot holes in his life story. 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.
Kingsolver (“The Poisonwood Bible”), a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, explores those gaps and the way they can alter people’s lives in The Lacuna, her first novel in nine years. (In between, she also published a bestselling memoir, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” about her family’s efforts to eat locally for one year. You will never look at rhubarb the same way again.) “The Lacuna” may be her most ambitious novel to date.
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.
Shepherd is a perpetual outsider who essentially raised himself with some help from a kind cook. His mother, a flapper who lived convinced that the next romance was going to be her ticket to riches, brought him to Mexico in the 1920s, but couldn’t be bothered to send him to school for years at a time. While living on an island with his mother and her current lover, Shepherd finds his first lacuna – an underwater tunnel “like a mouth, that swallows things.” Like Alice, he finds that dropping through a hole in the world leads to wonder. “At the end of the tunnel the cave opens up to light, a small salt-water pool in the jungle. Almost perfectly, as big across as this bedchamber, with sky straight up, dappled and bright through the branches.... Piles of stone blocks lay in a jumble around the edges of the pool, a broken-down something made of coral rock. Vines scrambled all over the ruin, their roots curling down through it like fingers in sand. It was a temple or something very ancient.”
His American father, a government employee, seems indifferent to missing the childhood of his only son, but does pony up for military school when Shepherd is a teen. He prefers that the boy not come home for summer vacation. (Shepherd doesn’t even have an official first name: His mother calls him Will; his dad, Harrison.)
During his childhood, Shepherd learns a few useful skills: how to hold his breath underwater for almost two minutes, how to bake, and how to pass through life virtually unnoticed. They all come in handy during the course of the novel, but the second brings him employment after he’s kicked out of military school for unstated reasons and returns to Mexico. (The journal from his last year in high school has been burned, his archivist informs us, but it’s pretty clear to a reader that his expulsion relates to his homosexuality. This would be “the missing piece of the manuscript.”)
His skill with flour makes him an excellent mixer of plaster, and he’s hired by famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Rivera soon installs him in his tempestuous household as a cook/secretary. There, Shepherd meets the imperious genius Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife and fellow artist. Kahlo, unable and unwilling to pronounce “Harrison,” promptly christens him Insolíto – Soli, for short – and remains a lifelong, if capricious, benefactor.
As if the house weren’t filled with enough outsized personalities, the Riveras take in Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his wife and shelter them from Stalin’s assassins. And Rivera loans Trotsky his bilingual cook as a typist – a switch that eventually becomes permanent. In between his secretarial duties and making tamales for 100, Shepherd records everything in his diaries.
This section is the heart of “The Lacuna,” and it’s among the most compelling writing of Kingsolver’s career. She does a wonderful job of re-creating the vibrancy and drama of life in 1930s Mexico. After Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, Kahlo, fearful of Shepherd’s safety, spirits him back to America, where the heartbroken young man settles in Asheville, N.C., and becomes a writer of historical bestsellers.
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. Shepherd’s quietly insightful secretary, Violet Brown, is one of the few genuine friends the lonely man has, but is hardly a substitute for the fiery artist Shepherd called “an Azteca queen.”
This is also the most overtly political section of the novel, as Kingsolver sets up a showdown between Shepherd and the House Un-American Activities committee. It’s witty and intelligent but also a tad preachy, and it lacks the emotional resonance that came before.
Shepherd himself is ambivalent about his journals. Writing is a compulsion, but at times he’s convinced that “accumulating words is a charlatan’s game.” He’s fond of quoting a Mexican saying that God speaks for the silent man. During the “red scare” in America, though, it’s entirely unclear whether Joseph McCarthy or J. Edgar Hoover would have listened, even to the Almighty. A mere Harrison Shepherd wouldn’t stand a chance.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.