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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 27 July 2019

"The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

We first meet Harrison Shepherd, born in the US of A to an American father and a Mexican mother, as a lonely boy in Mexico, learning about life from the monkeys in the trees and the fish in the sea and the cook in the kitchen. Later he becomes plaster-mixer, cook and secretary to famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, and then cook and secretary to Trotsky until Stalin's assassin catches up with Harrison's famous boss. Thus ends the first half of the book. The second half follows Harrison to Asheville, North Caroline, where he becomes a best-selling historical novelist until he runs foul of the McCarthyite government.

The first few pages prepare us for what is to come when he is misrepresented and persecuted:

  • In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten.” (first lines)
  • The rule of fishes is the same as the rule of people: if the shark comes, they will all escape, and leave you to be eaten.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The dancers were butterflies. From a hundred paces Salome could see the dirt under these girls’ fingernails, but not their wings.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
And the lacuna? A lacuna is a gap in the record and much is made of the missing notebook that, presumably, records why Harrison was expelled from a Washington School. As his boss, painter Frida says: “The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941). It is the things that others think they know about Harrison, wrongly, that get him persecuted. For Harrison a lacuna is also an underwater cave such as he has encountered in his Mexican boyhood, an opening into another world. But to the compiler of this memoir, working from his notes, Harrison himself is the lacuna, the eternal unobtrusive observer: “He wrote as if he'd been the one to carry the camera to each and everyone of his life's events, and thus was unseen in all the pictures.” (Part One, Archivist’s Note) References to lacunae are found throughout this novel:
Our house is like an empty cigarette packet, lying around reminding you what’s not in it.” (Part One, Mexico City 1930)

This is a cleverly told story. It's chronological structure, the use of an archivist to introduce the various sections, the 'lost notebook', the way in which Harrison works for famous people before going to live in a famous town, the description of the real-life assassination of Trotsky, the inclusion in the later parts of letters and newspaper clippings, all add so much to the verisimilitude that I searched for Harrison Shepherd in Wikipedia. However, it also served to slow the story down. Although the first part foreshadowed the second half this was not apparent at the time. I loved the first half and raced towards the assassination of Trotsky, which I knew must be coming, and the second half (which is the point of the story) seemed tame in comparison. I found the made-up newspaper cuttings and fan letters unreal and distracting.  In the end I can appreciate the cleverness of the structure and I suppose it is important to judge any work of art by its wholeness. And it didn't seem to drag. I planned to read it in five days and I finished it in four. So Ms Kingsolver must have been doing something right.

I think I prefer the Poisonwood Bible, by the same author, though, probably because the characters are larger than life, whilst young Harrison always hides himself, especially when having sex.

There are some great descriptions:
  • Hunched, woolly bodies balanced on swinging limbs, their tails reaching out to stroke the branches like guitar strings.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The little cathedral looks taller than it was, and menacing, like a person who comes into the bedroom carrying a candle.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The men's high-heeled boots cut hard at the ground, drumming like penned stallions. When the music paused, they leaned across their partners in the manner of animals preparing to mate. Move away, come back, the girls waggled their shoulders.” (Part One, Isla Pixol, 1929)
  • The waitresses had white aprons and eyes wide with fright.” (Part One, Mexico City 1930)

And there is advice:
  • She never says gracias because life is made of survival not grace.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • Once you’re on the horse you have to hold on, I suppose. Even if he bucks.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • “The longer the sauce cooks, the spicier it gets.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • Love ... winks on and off like an electric bulb.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • "A story is like a painting ... It doesn’t have to look like what you see out of the window.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery.” (Part Three, San Angel and Covoacan 1935 - 1941)
  • Prices rise like balloons, and we all jump like children under a pinata, reaching for our material passions.” (Part Four, Asheville, North Carolina 1941 - 7)
  • Ye cannot stop a bad thought from coming into your head. But ye need not pull up a chair and bide it sit down.” (Part Four, Asheville, North Carolina 1941 - 7)
  • She was curious about how a writer decides where to begin the story. You should start with ‘In the beginning’, I told her, but it should be as close to the end as possible. There's the trick.” (Part Four, Asheville, North Carolina 1941 - 7)
  • With Archie, irony carries the mailbag right to the door of nonchalance.” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
  • In the long run, most of us spend about fifteen minutes total in the entanglements of passion, and the rest of our days looking back on it, humming the tune.” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
  • You know what the issue is? Do you want to know? It's what these guys have decided to call America. They have the audacity to say, ‘There, you sons of bitches, don't lay a finger on it. That is a finished product!’” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
  • You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap.” (Part Five, Asheville, North Carolina 1948 - 50)
July 2019; 670 pages

Also set in Mexico: The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal

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