The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

‘Lacuna.’

I love it when a book introduces a new word and uses it sufficiently that you know it’s not fleeting knowledge, something you know for a day and have difficulty recalling a week later.  When that new word is the title of the book, there’s a pretty good chance you will remember it.

Deep water soloA ‘lucuna’ is a space or a void, a deep underwater cave, something hidden, unknown; already we see its metaphorical potential and Barbara Kingsolver puts it to good use in this excellent novel which intertwines the fictional story of 12 year old Shepherd, through historical events of Mexico and the US in the 1930’s and 40’s, including time spent in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and their controversial houseguest Leon Trotsky.

A fan of the film ‘Frida’ beautifully depicted by , I’d met these characters on screen and found them good company in Kingsolver’s story of Shepherd whose socially aspiring Mexican mother ditches her emotionally cool civil servant husband to return to “Isla Pixol” an island off the coast of Mexico.

Shepherd’s skills learned in the kitchen of his island home lead him to mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals “It’s like making dough for pan dulce” where he joins the household as cook and typist for Rivera, his artist wife, Frida Kahlo, and later for their guest, the exiled Communist leader Trotsky.

In this incendiary, revolutionary household, Shepherd listens and observes as egos roar and quake. Baking all day, he records the dramas of this entourage by night, along with his first novel, an epic of the Aztec empire.  In 1940, when Trotsky is assassinated, Shepherd leaves Mexico, spooked by newspaper articles denouncing his employers and friends.

The story unfolds through Shepherd’s diaries and letters as well as actual newspaper cuttings that reflect the selectively reported half-truths and lies used to justify hatred towards “them”: first the fascists, then the Reds.  And it seems anyone can become one of “them.”

Media madness and political upheaval follow,  then Violet arrives in Shepherd’s life to help record his stories.  She chances across a new gap – a long-vanished diary, Shepherd’s excuse for not finishing a memoir.

The Lacuna is multi layered, beautifully written and for me a joy to read.  Though some have struggled to get into it, I recommend you persevere and partake in this extraordinary journey through wonderfully depicted characters, and the conscious landscapes of Kingsolver’s world.