This is a book of two distinct parts. The first in thirties Mexico and the second in forties America. Weighing in at 507 pages it is also quite a weighty book.
Our protagonist is a writer, the first time Barbara Kingsolver has written about a writer, so maybe there are some autobiographical insights into how she approaches the writing process.
“Accumulating words is a charlatan’s career. How important is anything that could burn in ash in a few minutes?”
Harrison William Shepherd, our writer-protagonist, was born in America but taken to Mexico at the age of 12 by his Mexican mother. In Mexico he befriends the hacienda’s cook and learns how to mix dough, a useful skill when later Diego Rivera wants someone to mix plaster for him: “It’s like making dough for pan dulce”. Diego Rivera is the Mexican muralist and husband of Frida Kahlo. Shepherd becomes a member of Rivera’s household as a cook and typist. Later an exiled Trotsky joins the group. Trotsky rues the revolution in Russia had been taken over by Stalin. Stalin has been methodically purging Russia of Trotsky’s friends and family. The charges against such persons were strange and diverse from the derailing of trains to poisoning Stalin’s hair cream.
“Stalin uses hair cream?” asks Shepherd.
“Careful lad, ” said Lev (Trotsky). “That knowledge alone could get you the firing squad.”
In 1940, when Trotsky is assassinated, Shepherd leaves Mexico, at the age of 24, he returns to the United States and settles in Asheville, North Carolina. He is not drafted for psychological reasons, he spends the war in the civil service looking after the nation’s art works. After the War, he becomes a reclusive, author of swashbuckling Mexican historical novels (“Vassals of Majesty,” “Pilgrims of Chapultepec” titles chosen by his publisher not himself). Viola Brown his stenographer observes “People love to read of sins and errors, just not their own,” she remarks. “You were wise to put your characters far from here.”
The book is a collection of diary entries, letters and newspaper articles, ending with a transcript of the hearings of the protagonist facing the House of Un-American Activities. His words and associations are twisted to make it seem this apolitical writer is a rabid communist intent on overthrowing the US government. Echoing the treatment Trotsky had at the hands of the Stalinist propaganda machine.
The protagonist is gay but chooses to live a single life. “People contort themselves around the terror of being alone, making any compromise against that. It’s a great freedom to give up on love, and get on with everything else.” he tells Frida Kahlo in a letter.
The lacuna of the title has many meanings, there is a submerged cave entrance he likes to explore, on the Mexican coast, waiting for the tides to be just right. There is also the lacuna between the truth and what is reported, both in the Stalinist press concerning Trotsky and in the American press over those accused of being communists.
My rating : 5 out of 5