October 2010

Because of other commitments some of the group were unable to attend this month but that never prevents a lively discussion and in this respect Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna did not fail.  Although we all felt this 700 page tome would have benefitted from a judicious edit, most of those who finished it thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Like the author’s earlier novel, The Poisonwood Bible, this work is rich in themes, ideas, local colour and historical context.  It focuses on the life of Harrison Shepherd,  whose copious note-taking throughout his life forms the basic text of the story with sections edited by VB who we later discover is his secretary. It is significant that our protagonist does not use one name throughout but is called different names by the various characters, reflecting the fact that most of the time he is a nonentity, a mere observer of events.  Indeed we are taken on a search for identity and the desire to find a home where he feels he belongs.  As he says near the end, ‘I only thought to look for a home, some place to be taken in.’

Son of an American father and Mexican mother, Harrison’s life shifts between the different worlds of  1930s/40s USA and post-revolutionary Mexico.  He finds some happiness working for the famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who involve him in their community of radical artists.  Here the author excels herself.  Her rich evocation of place is more effective than any travelogue piece in depicting the vibrancy of Mexican culture.   Then Trotsky comes to stay with the artists and our protagonist’s life is changed for ever.  After the murder of the Russian Marxist, Harrison feels he must leave and he moves to North America where he becomes a successful though reclusive novelist.

History again intervenes for we are taken into the period of the anti-communist hysteria of the inter-war years where association with Trotsky is bound to arouse suspicion.   Kingsolver’s research is formidable and she deftly weaves her fictional characters into the social context of the time. She shows how a brief non-political link with a world renowned figure can be built up by zealous politicians and the press into a tissue of lies.  To avoid persecution by the Committee on Unamerican activities, Harrison returns to his childhood home in Mexico, where he disappears while swimming and is presumed dead.  We are brought full circle for at the beginning of the book he discovers the lacuna – a gap that occurs at low tide and through which one can escape by swimming underwater and emerging in a cave.  Now he uses this to leave behind his old life and return to the artists’ community in Mexico City with a new identity.

Next month we are discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood on 4 November.

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