February 28, 2010
Reading list~The Lacuna
About five years ago I read The Poisonwood Bible, and loved it so much that I figured I would never read another book by Barbara Kingsolver. I was too afraid of being disappointed; I couldn’t believe that she’d ever manage to live up to the accomplishment of that book. So for five years, I didn’t touch another of Kingsolver’s novels. A friend gave me Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for my birthday, which I did adore, but that didn’t count since it was a completely different medium and genre.
Well, my stepmother, who adored Poisonwood Bible on about the same level that I did, gave me The Lacuna for Christmas, in open defiance of my oft-stated fear of reading any more Kingsolver ever. I couldn’t not read a Christmas present…though the shabby reviews I’d heard had me convinced more than ever that this would only be a let-down after Poisonwood Bible.
Ignore the reviews. They didn’t get it. The book isn’t even about what they say it’s about. It’s not even about what the dust jacket says it’s about. Honestly, this book touched me so personally and deeply that at first I thought I wouldn’t even be able to write about it publicly at all.
The first thing to understand is that The Lacuna is a character-driven story. And I have never, never empathized with a character before like I did with Harrison Shepherd. I’ve had favorite characters–Lyra of His Dark Materials, Astrid of White Oleander, Adah in Poisonwood–but never felt the sense of connection with a protagonist’s inner life that I did with Shepherd, whom we follow in the novel from a lonely 12-year-old boy to an accomplished author as an adult, before his life is ruined by the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the early 1950’s.
Kingsolver’s remarkable and uncanny sense of character voice is on display again here as it was in Poisonwood. The story is narrated mostly but not entirely by Shepherd himself, through his journals and personal papers, collected and curated by his faithful secretary at the end of his life. Often, I would forget entirely that I was not in fact reading the personal diary of an odd teenage boy, but the novel of a middle-aged woman. He was utterly real to me. He’s a perpetual outsider, always torn between worlds but belonging to none, intensely emotionally immersed in each place he lives but forever without a real home. Raised in both the US and Mexico, dualities and contradictions persist throughout and rule his life: he’s able to love deeply but never feel loved. He has no native language. He’s a writer of wildly popular historical fiction, but who has no understanding of how people actually think. His lawyer has to explain to him that the anti-communism sweeping the country has almost nothing whatsoever to do with actual communism. “They think I’m too lucky?” he asks incredulously of the people who resent him for the comfortable life he eventually attains, without seeing what mere survival has cost him. And ultimately, though he will not speak up for himself, believing that “God speaks for the silent man,” he is betrayed by his own words anyway.
The “lacuna” of the title is literally an underwater cave, and summaries of the book call it symbolic of the difference between private reality and public presentation, but it’s more than that: it’s the inadequacy of language to tell some truths, the void of understanding in any story, the missing piece, which Kingsolver says is always the most important piece, whether of a story or of a person; the most important thing is the one you don’t know.
Other negative reviews have accused that Shepherd is too passive an observer of history to be engaging, too retiring and bashful a representative of the everyman participant in major events that Kingsolver means him to be, but this misses the point. His life is an emblem of how events make each of us the people we are–he was forced to play a great part in history just to survive, and was fatally marked by it, but remained a lacuna himself–the part of the story we don’t see.
This is a gorgeous book; Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo are magnetic characters that I came to appreciate as people along with Shepherd, and the ending is magical. But the character of Harrison Shepherd is what made me deeply grateful to Kingsolver for The Lacuna.