The Lacuna by Barbara Kingslover
Harper, New York, 2009
Winner of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.
I have loved Barbara Kingslover’s writing ever since I read The Bean Trees many years ago. Her first books were smart and funny, written with an obvious love of language. As she has matured, so has her skill at observation and her ability to write her perceptions of history, twining these thoughts throughout her work.
The Lacuna follows the life of author Harrison Shepard. Born in the United States, his mother is Mexican, his father American. His mother runs away to Mexico, taking Harrison with her. They live in several households, but the boy finds no real sense of home in any of them. His education begins in kitchens, where housekeepers put him to work. It continues on the street and in the company of his friend, Leandro, but somehow Harrison always maintains an emotional distance. Kingsolver is able to bring the reader into his world. Her ability to evoke place is something I marvel at.
Floating on the sea is like flying: looking down on the city of fishes, watching them do their shopping. Flying away como el pez valador. Like a flying fish. The bottom falls, and in deep water you can soar, slipping away from the crowded coral-head shallows to the quiet dark blue. Shadows of hunters move along the bottom. From pages 34-35.
At the core of this story is the act of writing, gathering words, be it in notebooks or on scraps of paper. Harrison steals an account book from his mother and begins to write everything down. He does this for years, making notes about people, places, conversations. During the 1930’s, he returns to school in the US, and writes down bits and pieces of US history, including the Lindberg kidnapping and the Bonus Expeditionary Forces, constantly filling up his notebooks. His mention of the press reminded me that we have always been at the mercy of the media, be it old-style print or network-style ranting.
The editorial writer applauded MacArthur for sparing the public treasury: The nation is being bled dry by persons like these who offend common decency.
“Why would the paper say they are criminals?”
“They were treated like criminals,” Bull’s Eye replied. “So people want to think it. The paper says whatever they want.”
It was no use reading more, but hard to stop. The late extra had photos. A society page. While soldiers poured gasoline on the shacks, the upper crust were cruising the river on their yachts, watching MacArthur spare the public treasury. A Mrs. Harcourt required medical attention after she saw a small boy receive a bayonet through his lower body. Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut was badly jostled on the street in front of the warehouse while attempting to leave his office. His injuries were not mortal, but earned as many newspaper inches as all the others together, including a woman in the Anacostia camp who lost her sight to flaming gasoline thrown in her face, and the vets from the Argonne shot dead in their own country. A dozen kids got shattered limbs or broken skulls. Two infants died of inhaling gas. From page 109.
Harrison returns to Mexico and ends up working for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and eventually, Leon Trotsky. Here again Kingsolver places her protagonist with real people and in real situations, constantly shining a light on what we may or may not think we know. It is during this time, with Frida Kahlo’s encouragement, that Harrison begins to believe in himself as an author.
“Look, Frida. I’m going to tell you something, and it doesn’t even matter if you make fun of me. Ever since I was fourteen and read Cortes, I’ve been writing a story about the Azteca. Mostly in my head, but a lot on paper. And now I can see that I’ve had the story all wrong, all this time. I’ve spent years writing something really stupid.”
She nodded, biting into a tamale. “Tell me in what way it’s stupid.”
“My impression was from books. The ancients seemed to be…what the professor said. Locked in a struggle for greatness. Heros and battles, mythic kings.”
“Well nobody knows how they were, so you can make up anything you want.” She pawed through the basket for napkins. She brought the blue-and-yellow ones. “A story is like a painting, Soli. It doesn’t have to look like what you see out the window.” From pages 196-197.
The novel is actually a compilation of Harrison’s notebooks, brought together by his secretary, a wonderful women named Violet Brown, after his final return to the United States. Circumstances force him to order Violet to burn his notebooks but, luckily for the reader, she chooses to save them. Kingsolver packed so much into this book that I find it difficult writing about it. There are too many thoughts in my head, too many pages to quote. Some readers have struggled with this. I love it and will end up adding The Lacuna to my personal library, next to The Poisonwood Bible.
I relish the mixing of cultures in Harrison Shepard and in the novel. Some of my favorite passages reflect Shepard’s observations of both cultures, as he stands on the border, a citizen of neither.
The mother of Jesus, similarly sloe-eyed, bid us sit on a log while she dipped beans from a cauldron that must bubble eternally on the fire outside her hut. Her name is: Maria, naturally. Her lath house, like every one in the village, had a tall peaked roof of thatch, open at each gable end for ventilation. Inside the open doorway a knot of motionless brown limbs, presumably sleeping children, weighed a hammock into a deep V shape, the inverse of the roofline. At the side of the house a scrambled garden grew, but the front was bare dirt, furnished only with the logs on which we perched. Mrs. Brown steadied the tin plate on her knee with a gloved hand, tweed skirt pulled around her knees, eyebrows sailing high, calf leather brogues carefully set together in the dust. Flowering riotously around her were a hundred or more orchids, planted in rusted lard tins. White, pink, yellow, the paired petals hung like butterflies above roots and leaves.
My beauties, Maria called them, leaning forward to brush a speck of ash from her son’s worn shirt, then gently boxing his good ear. “The only importance is beauty.” From pages 392-393.