18 September 2011

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful writer, so even her less fantastic books are a pleasure to read. The Lacuna is a meandering sort of novel, partly because of its form; it's ostensibly a collection of diaries, letters, news articles, and some commentary. But it successfully collates all of this into an overarching narrative, the story of one man's life. When we meet him, Harrison Shephard is a young boy living in Mexico with his mother. He finds himself working for Diego Rivera, mixing plaster, and from there, Forrest Gump like, he becomes a kind of screen onto which various historical forces are projected.

Lukacs argued that the main character of a historical novel ought to be a somewhat mediocre character, so that he could more effectively be the conduit for history, a passive leaf floating on a river, illustrating the currents. I guess the problem with this novel is, perhaps, that Shephard is a bit too interesting. The book can't really make up its mind, whether it wants to be the truth of this man, or the truth of history, and it's not entirely successful at being both. The parts that are more geared towards exploring his own character are the most compelling; the parts where history looms large are decidedly less so. To me at least. A lot of the historical aspect seemed gimmicky and melodramatic. While it's in some ways refreshing to see the supposedly idyllic 50s being painted as a kind of dark ages of hysteria (mostly through the Red Scare), I can't say that I completely buy the paranoid image of life Kingsolver paints. I suppose we are meant to be drawing parallels to our own historical moment, which makes me find it all the more irritating.

Still, it was a pleasant enough read. The diary portions are quite effective in presenting the image of everyday life. I really appreciated the delicate and subtle handling of the more intimate aspects of the main character's life, particularly sex. I read the book over a period of 3 days, but it definitely felt like it dragged at moments. Overall, it's not an especially rewarding book, and definitely not nearly as good as some of her others.

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