KDS (decemberthirty) wrote,
KDS
decemberthirty

I finished Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna over the weekend, my first book of the new year. This morning I sat down and made three different starts to this review, none of which seemed right. So I'll try again. Perhaps this is fitting; the book took some time to get off the ground as well.

The Lacuna is written as a pastiche, an assemblage of journal entries, correspondence, and newspaper clippings that tell the story of Harrison Shepherd. The book (and Shepherd's life) splits into halves as easily as a peeled orange. The first half is Mexico: color, adventure, drama, close friendships with famous personages--Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky. The second half is Asheville, North Carolina: a quiet house, work and reclusivity, Shepherd and his secretary Violet Brown. Although the first half would seem to be more exciting, it was the second half that captivated me. In the first half, Shepherd himself was a lacuna, seeming always to efface himself from his own record of his own life. I wanted more of him, and less of the famous people around him, whose stories are already so well-known. I got what I wanted later on, after Shepherd has moved to North Carolina and (perhaps because he has become a writer?) Kingsolver allows his personal writings to become more reflective.

This is a book with some historical sweep to it, and it suffers a bit from the same flaw as A.S. Byatt's vast The Children's Book. Like Byatt, Kingsolver seems to feel compelled to include every historical and cultural development that occurred in the lifetime of her character. At times, this feels like a bit much, especially since her handling of the politics of the period is not exactly nuanced. In fact, the only times I got annoyed at Kingsolver's prose (which is mostly quite lovely) were when any two characters discussed politics together. Suddenly it was all ham-fisted dialogue and simplified moralizing!

The book also suffers from what George Saunders calls a "moment of avoidance," and I think it's a big one. Kingsolver leads us right up to Shepherd's first sexual relationship, with a classmate named Billy Boorzai, but the meat of that relationship turns out to be in the only journal in Shepherd's life that was destroyed. It's clear that the experience is major to Shepherd, and that what happens to him and to Billy Boorzai is important to his later development, but we don't get to see any of it. We come to the brink, and then skip forward to a man who spends the rest of his adult life living in near-celibacy. It's not that I can't make guesses and fill in some of the blanks, but I find myself wanting to tell Kingsolver what George Saunders told me about my moments of avoidance: "lean into the action."

So The Lacuna has flaws. Still, I liked Harrison Shepherd enough to make me like the whole book. I liked his reticence, and his deep yearnings, and the way he (almost) always kept those yearnings to himself. I wanted happiness for him, though he never seemed quite capable of getting it. He joins the long list of literary characters that I want to invite over for tea, and protect from all the bad things in the world.
Tags: barbara kingsolver
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