“The Lacuna,” by Barbara Kingsolver

Reviewed by Bonnie Armstrong

Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel in ten years, The Lacuna, opens with the words: “In the beginning were the howlers.”  The howlers are monkeys on an island off the coast of Mexico, and the year is 1929. Born in the United States, Harrison William Shepherd spent his boyhood in Mexico with his Mexican mother who is divorced from his American father. Though his mother is the first to encourage him to write, she provides only a precarious support system for Shepherd as she pursues relationships with several Mexican oil tycoons.  Finally, she packs teenage Shepherd off to be with his father in the United States, where he witnesses the Bonus Army protest on Washington, D.C. in the early 1930s.

Ignored by his father and threatened with having to attend a school for mentally handicapped children (though he is exceptionally bright), Shepherd returns to Mexico and becomes a cook and typist in the household of muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. The tempestuous Frida becomes a life-long friend, and through this couple Shepherd becomes acquainted with the Communist revolutionary Trotsky , the former Russian leader who has sought asylum in Mexico City from Stalin’s death threats.

Disheartened by Trotsky’s assassination, Shepherd seeks a new life in America just as World War II is about to begin. Settling in Asheville, North Carolina, he begins working on historical Aztec novels and meets a quiet, capable woman only recently escaped from her Appalachian hills background.  Violet Brown becomes his secretary, and they develop a complex and mutually supportive bond, though without sexual intimacy.  Shepherd has long known that he is homosexual, but has, for the most part, kept his orientation hidden.  By mid-century, Shepherd’s writing achieves critical and popular success, and he finally finds fulfillment in a love relationship with a man. But at the height of his acceptance both professionally and personally, the House Un-American Activities Committee targets him in its quest to root out subversives, particularly in the arts.

The story comes full circle, with the early howler monkeys now replaced by the howlers of the newspapers and radio. We see through letters, articles (both real and invented), and journal entries, how the media howlers’ half-truths and misinterpretations, based on Shepherd’s Mexican associations  and lifestyle, cast doubt on his current political views, intentions, and lifestyle. Finally, government officials open an investigation, and Shepherd’s resistance to the simplistic orthodoxy of the time deepens their suspicions.  As a result, Shepherd loses his readers, his love relationship, and the regard of his Asheville neighbors. Only Violet remains steadfast in her support.

The novel’s title suggests an absence, a gap, a tunnel through time or substance, or a missing part of a manuscript. Kingsolver uses the concept of the lacuna to tie together the threads of the plot.  In Mexico, Shepherd is swept through a tunnel in the rocks of the sea; traveling between the United States and Mexico, he must bridge cultural, social, and political gaps. Shepherd’s hidden aspects are revealed through Violet’s publication of his personal writings.

Kingsolver has said that the novel was born in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  The vitriolic response of the media toward anyone who raised questions about how America should respond stunned her. As she says: “The culture of fear is potent and terrible, something worth dissecting in order to understand.”  She focused on a question she’d harbored for a long time: “Why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the U.S.?”

Kingsolver’s stated intent in writing novels is to engage readers in important and relevant social issues through the use of vivid characters, compelling details, and well-paced, interesting plots. Most reviewers agreed that she superbly achieved her goal in The Lacuna, though a few mentioned that the writing in the latter part of the book, as Shepherd is hounded by the media and the government, is more restrained, emotionally distant, and sometimes even preachy.

This distancing effect results, in part, from how Kingsolver moves the narrative forward in this section, using  both real and fabricated newspaper articles to broaden the scope of the novel, catapulting the reader from Shepherd’s perspective to the wider social and political context in which he lives. This more comprehensive perspective sharpens our awareness of how deeply the fear of Communism had permeated American thought in the late 1940s and how intolerant and rigid the culture had become.  In particular, the articles reprinted verbatim from the New York Times underscore the reality of the issues embedded in the novel, revealing how easily and quickly respect for diversity can be lost and replaced by fear of differences and persecution of those who don’t conform. Because we care about Shepherd, we come to understand not only the general effects of intolerance and repression, but also the personal pain suffered by an individual who is perceived as a threat to the dogma of the day.

Now, sixty plus years removed from  mid-century America, The Lacuna can help us compare and contrast the events and mood of the House Un-American Activities years to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept 11. Once again, the freedom to be diverse in opinions, ideas, and lifestyles has been under fire, with government practices such as detainment without habeas corpus and even torture touted as necessary to ensure American safety and way of life.  The Lacuna encourages us to remember our history and understand how relevant our past is to our present.

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