Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 13, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is the winner of the 2010 Orange Prize for fiction.  The book covers vast territory, both geographically (Mexico, America, Russia, France to name but a few countries where people reside, flee from or find refuge) and politically / culturally (Mexico in the thirties, pre war America, war time America and post war McCarthyism, art  and politics, to name but a few)  Then there are the characters, real and fictitious, woven together to create a story that is about real events and history, even though it is told from the point of view of a totally fictitious character, carefully placed within these historical events, Harrison William Shepherd (referred to as HWS).

The life of HWS becomes inextricably linked with that of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, who in real life provide refuge for Trotsky, who is trying to escape Stalin’s assassination attempts.  Both are artists, whose marriage is often under threat from infidelities, committed by both, and HWS becomes a confidant of Frida, spies for her and is ultimately rewarded by her when she rescues his notebooks and a draft for a novel from the hands of the Mexican police, who are investigating Trotsky’s murder.

Maya Jaggi’s review of the book in the Guardian, Saturday 7 November 2009, states that Barbara Kingsolver, the author:

‘….takes a huge risk in venturing into copiously charted territory. It moves from the muralists and surrealists of the 1930s in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution to the McCarthyism witch-hunt of artists in the late 40s and 50s. Yet in crossing and recrossing the US-Mexican border, as novelists such as Carlos Fuentes have done before her, this novel reveals a singular ambition. It 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.’

Read her  full and excellent  review if you want an overview of the story, there is no need for me to repeat that here.

The Observer review makes the point, which  was my feeling exactly when reading the book, that HWS does not really come to life as a character until very much later in the book, it’s almost as if he is a pendant that is required in order to narrate the history of what happened and is given some clothes to wear as a character:

Until far too late in the book, he [HWS] has no compelling individual voice, acting purely as a cipher for the other, non-fictional characters. His presence at multiple key moments in 20th-century history – the Bonus marchers of 1932, the assassination of Trotsky – seems contrived, and even in the sections about his boyhood he remains curiously blank. It is only in the final chapters, when Shepherd becomes the centre of the action, that he emerges as a real personality,’  writes Alice O’Keeffe.

Because of this, I think that the book at times comes across as rambling and once or twice I had to force myself to carry on reading.   The confusion of diaries, interjections and imagined news paper articles at times seem to cover up for real character development.   Mind you, it is all very intriguing and once HWS has made the transition from being this ‘add-on’ to becoming someone you are interested in as a person and character in the book, his experience of the McCarthy witch hunt and how he reacts to this, I felt I was hooked again.

Of course, having the internet is helpful with a book like this, you can quickly brush up on who Frida Kohl was, on Trotsky‘s exile and disagreements with Stalin, etc.  There are photographs of these people so that the history becomes  real and then reading the book becomes quite rewarding. 

Finally, I should say that two further reviews are full of praise for the book:

Nina Lakhani in the Independent of 1 November 2009 writes:

Every few years, you read a book that makes everything else in life seem unimportant. The Lacuna is the first book in a long time that made me swap my bike for public transport, just so I could keep reading.’

Jane Shilling in The Telegraph states that ‘readers will love it.’

And of course, the book won the Orange Prize for Fiction, no mean feat!

I will definitely try some of Kingsolver’s other books, having read this one.  But when?  My e-reader has a list of books and I am in the process of collecting all (!) Booker long list titles….  It probably cannot be done in this lifetime.  Moreover, I have seriously started to write again, and that comes first.  Hence the long gaps between posts.



  1. Great review, Seachanges. L has this on her bedside table so I’m sure I’ll read it at some point. I’m really quite intrigued now.

    Good luck with all the writing. I remember you were writing radio plays, or are you on to the 51 Stories now?

  2. Hi Pete – glad you like the review and hope you get round to reading the book! As far as my writing is concerned, I’m back with the novel, 1000 words this week, have reached 60,000… oh my. Well, have a long way to go still, but it does feel good! The 51 stories? I think I’ve got about 5 properly finished and edited, plus about 10 on the go. Work tends to get in the way, as you well know 🙂

  3. A very good review which tells me all I need to know – before I read it – its at the bottom of my TBR pile somewhere. I did actually start it but like you found it rather rambling and I put it to one side

  4. Tom: Yes, despite getting into it halfway through the book, I’m still surprised it actually won the Booker Prize. It needed some more editing….

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