Brilliant after a meandering start

This is my review of The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

“You have to get right into the action, readers are impatient.” Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver should have heeded the advice of her “hero”, the author Harrison Shepherd. The first couple of hundred pages were heavy going, being mainly in the form of the diary written largely in Mexico by the teenage Harrison, rambling entries in an often pretentious style with stilted conversations and unengaging characters, not least the waspish woman who turned out to be the painter Frida Kahlo- it was hard to believe she was only about five years older than Harrison. I realised later that the style had a point as he was meant to be developing his voice as a writer. Also, the relevance of the initially tedious interruptions of the “Archivist’s Notes” made sense in due course. The odd witty comment or well-observed scene made the effort of reading worthwhile, such as the vivid account (back in America) of bystanders caught up in an over-zealous attack , as government troops used tear gas and brute force to quell demonstrating soldiers with a legitimate grievance over pay. However, too much hung on the reputation of “The Poisonwood Bible” to keep me reading.

The plot picked up pace when Trotsky appeared on the scene, but the book really began to absorb me on Harrison’s return to the States, as a guilt-ridden young man who hadn’t managed to save Trotsky from the icepick, inspired to write novels by Frida. Kingsolver’s descriptions of small-town life in the Mid-West rang truer for me than those of the painter Rivera’s household in Mexico. However, perhaps the writing had found its rhythm because the subsequent return visits to Mexico with Harrison’s assistant Violet Brown (and her splendid dry wit – “Even a feather duster will lay an egg in April”) also seemed more alive.

I was very impressed by the build up of tension as Harrison inadvertently but inexorably attracted the malign attention of the Committee of Un-American Activities, culminating in a excellent trial scene, written like a play – out-crucibling “The Crucible”. The final section tied up the ends neatly, and returned full circle to show the relevance of some of the earlier passages, such as Harrison’s discovery of his first “lacuna”- the hole in the cliff exposed only at low tide. I liked the final note of optimism to relieve the initial apparent darkness of the ending. The author succeeded in making us grow to care about Harrison.

Unlike, “Poisonwood”, which tails off and loses focus after a brilliant first part, this book has an excellent second half, but a beginning which could have done with more hints of the promise to come. A shorter first part with a sharper focus would have made a more effective novel overall. I could have done with a glossary of Mexican terms, a brief history and biography of the historical characters, for quick reference.

It was an interesting approach to make “an ordinary man” the vehicle for an exploration of the abuse of power, and the similarities in this respect between apparently very different regimes, be they ancient Mexico, the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the States when prey to McCarthyism. In the process, the “celebrities”, Frida and her husband, were perhaps unduly blurred, although Trotsky was portrayed as a more rounded and sympathetic character. I am not sure that Kingsolver has revealed any great truths or insights, but she has the power to remind and outrage us once again over the way men can misuse ideologies to persecute each other.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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