Book Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Cover of "The Lacuna: A Novel"

Cover of The Lacuna: A Novel

If you want to understand Mexico and the U.S. more fully, read this book.

Subtle themes of identity, conflicts between people and countries, emptiness, loneliness and belonging punctuate Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, The LacunaLacuna is a complex word and Kingsolver uses it with agility and depth. It means a gap, a hole, a missing piece, an extended silence, the lack of law or legal source.  In the novel it is a cenote, a hole in the earth and place to disappear or be swallowed up, to die and become reinvented.  The image that comes to my mind when I think about this concept is Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream” – a silent, gaping mouth that expresses all the pain in the world without emitting a single sound.

The Aztecs and Mayans used human sacrifice to appease deities by sending maidens, political opponents, and captured innocents to their deaths, pushing them into deep limestone, water-filled cenotes.  In the lacunae of modernity our political and social systems, and laws that codify authority sacrifice innocents as well as vocal opponents to the God of power, control, conformity, and profit.

The novel begins and ends in Mexico.  Mexico is at its heart.  Mexico is the thread that binds this story.  Kingsolver’s protagonist is Harrison William Shepherd, brought into the world as a result of a precarious union between an American man and Mexican woman.  They represent the conflicting gaps between two nations bound together by virtue of sharing the same continent, border, and struggle for nationhood that took different directions.

Shepherd, is a mestizo, though not by traditional definition.  The Mexican mestizo is considered by political and social commentators to be the embodiment of conflicted identity that emerged from the comingling of the conquering Spanish and indigenous Mesoamerican.  La Malinche, Cortes’ indigenous consort, is the symbol of the ultimate betrayal.

Kingsolver creates a mestizo who also does not belong fully to either parentage.  His American father is a Washington, DC bureaucrat, rule-bound, conservative, and emotionally unavailable.  His Mexican mother is bold, fiery, impetuous, and rebellious.  They see in the other what they want to become and are incapable of making the relationship work.   The mother flees the marriage, taking her young son to Mexico and the magnificent story unfolds.  It is filled with mystery and sublime description as Shepherd explores his own identity, where he belongs, his own voice as a writer of fiction, and role as an active or passive player in life.

The Lacuna takes us through a thirty-year span of political and social upheaval from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.  Through the eyes of fictional Shepherd and his personal secretary Violet Brown, along with Kingsolver’s humanizing portrayals of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, we understand the impact of the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, the Great Depression, World War II, the atom bomb, The Cold War, McCarthyism, sexual identity and the lacuna that fear creates in the hearts and minds of would-be decent human beings.

Washington Post Review by Ron Charles:

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