The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver


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.

34 thoughts on “The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

    • Thanks Myne, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ was a special book and it was great to read ‘The Lacuna’, it being 9 years since her last publication. I neglected to mention that it also won the 2010 Orange prize for fiction.

      Enjoyed your blogs, keep writing.


    • Thanks Amanda, I hope you enjoy this one too, she’s a fabulous writer and the film I mention with Salma Hayek playing ‘Frida’ is awesome too as a background to that period in history.


  1. I love this post! Thank you. We’ve been thinking about lacunae a lot in New Zealand this year, in relation to earthquakes– And I love the word, too, for some reason think about it alongside meniscus, also a very beautiful word–


    • Thanks Marian, its an evocative word and I love the boldness of making it a title!

      I grew up on a 1600 acre farm in the limestone backcountry of Port Waikato where there were lots of caves, tomos and holes in rocks/cliffs, so I think something resonated “in the deep”. And here where I live now I am aware of nearby caves with drawings depicted by humans 37,000 years ago – intriguing.
      Meniscus, yes – I agree.


  2. You know, I’ve discovered your site at the right time – I’ve been poking around for new books to read. The only Kingsolver novel I’ve read is The Poisonwood Bible, but I enjoyed it, and like other commenters, am adding this one to my list. And by the way, I absolutely adore the banner on your site! It is gorgeous.


    • This novel gives you a little insight into her life, though she is not the main focus; the film really shows you more of ‘Frida’ and though I’ve not read (but must) the biography by Hayden Herrera I believe it is an excellent account of her life and art.


    • I wouldn’t say it focuses so much on Frida, as it is the story of Shepherd, but he does live/work in the Kahlo/Diego household during an interesting period in history and I found it interesting that Kingsolver immersed herself in that world in order to create this story. Thanks for commenting Nadia 🙂


  3. Kingsolver is an excellent author, and I can imagine this book was worth staying to he finish. I too loved Frida, and that alone generates enough intrigue for me to give this a read.

    Thank you for the insightful review!


  4. The Lacuna is one of my favorite books. Loved Poisonwood, too. Her beautiful language along with my interest in Mexico, Frida K, cenotes, and the McCarthy trials from which my father might have been running as a socialist Dist Att. in Wisconsin, all hit home for me. Love your blog. Check mine out at Jill


  5. This was one of the most unforgettable books I’ve read during the last few years. I’ve read The Poisonwood Bible twice and would happily read it again. Kingsolver is not only a grand mistress of technique but also a wonderful storyteller. Thanks so much for reviewing Lacuna and helping me to gain further insights.


  6. Hi Claire,

    Serendipitous indeed that you popped into my blog having randomly chosen me from amongst 400+ other campaigners – and when I visit you in return, you have just reviewed the book which is next up for discussion for my book club! I haven’t read it yet so won’t read your review in case of spoilers. I have read and loved a previous Kingsolver though, one which others above haven’t mentioned: Prodigal Summer. I really must read Poisonwood Bible too, as so many people mention it.

    Our last book club read was this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction winner, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

    Best of luck with your writing! I hope the city of love inspires…


    • Hi Adina,
      I love that! Diving in without hesitation or knowledge of a connection and suddenly it surfaces. I hope the book invites an interesting discussion, most of the comments on my post are positive, but before I read it, I heard plenty of negative comments as well, so I think its a good title for a book discussion, to get that cross section of opinion and understand why.
      Thanks for the reminder, I haven’t read ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ yet, will add it to my ‘to read ‘list.
      All the best with your writing and inspiration and thanks for connecting…


  7. Thanks for visiting over at Blogging for a Good Book. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts and found myself wishing, as always, that immortality could be granted to readers. So many books, so little time.

    I didn’t see any other reference to it, but “lacuna” is also a library term meaning “missing text”, such as the year of diary entries Harrison has eliminated even before Violet comes into his life.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting and sharing another insight into a wonderful word, I love how ‘lacuna’ has come into the light and more common usage through this book.


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  10. Nice review, Claire! I think this is a very different Kingsolver book compared to her other works which focus mostly on nature and people’s relationship to them. I would love to read ‘The Lacuna’ sometime. Thanks for your wonderful review!


    • It is a departure for Kingsolver and well worth persevering with, I loved the artistic and political context within which she so courageously writes and the very different narrative structure which proved to be too much of a change for some. Not only that but a new word lacuna one that I come across often now! I am sure you will appreciate this one.


      • Thanks for telling me more about ‘The Lacuna’, Claire. I will look for the book when I go to the library the next time. It is nice that Kingsolver introduces a new word in the title and then uses it well in the book. I will look forward to reading the book.


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