Monday, August 15, 2011

So what does lacuna mean?

I've been trying to remember when I was first introduced to Barbara Kingsolver's work. I think it was through reading "The Poisonwood Bible" in my early 20's. My most favorite librarian, Mary Post, loaned it to me along with a stack of other books. (If I am recalling correctly I was also reading Kingsolver's work in a college course titled "Wild Women of the Natural World." Excellent course for my budding feminist self!) For me there is an excitement to finding a new writer whose stories you can get inside and just experience. For me Kingsolver is that kind of author. I have devoured her novels and read several more than once. The Poisonwood Bible is actually not my favorite, I'm more a fan of The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams. Those stories have invited me in and seem to unravel effortlessly before me. I just finished reading her latest story, The Lacuna. I'll confess at first I had no idea what that word meant. But after reading the story it does seem to fit. And that's the thing about Kingsolver her work is deep and layered. Now another confession, it took me two different attempts several months apart to successfully start and finish this book. The beginning is somewhat "different". Not bad or good, just slow to get into. Perhaps part of the issue is that I could just step into the other novels and feel the storyline. With this book I had to wade in and then come out and get my bearings, at least in the beginning. There are so many details, most of which made very little sense to me at the beginning. So I'd read a bit, stop for a while and then go back for a bit more. I think it really started to flow when Frida Kahlo's character begins to occupy a central role. At that point I felt invested in Harrison and more than a little curious of what might become if him. Kingsolver wove this story more contextually into history it seems than her other works. So my US history knowledge was also tested! Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the life of Trotsky. The tenderness with which he is portrayed seems to balance the chaos of Harrison's life. However, throughout that entire portion of the narrative I found myself anticipating tragedy. When the main character is working for someone whose whole life is spent avoiding assassination it can't end well. Interestingly this portion of the book seems like the most at home Harrison feels throughout the entire story. And yes the section does end tragically.
When I finished this portion of his life I found myself a little surprised that almost half the book still remained. Where else would she take Harrison I wondered?
The last part of the book takes place in the US during the Red Scare. Having not lived through that part of history myself I have to rely on my history books to help me understand the power that an accusation of communist activity carried. Kingsolver's book brings this reality to the forefront. It struck me how easily an individual could be made into a suspect or seen as "the other". I wasn't necessarily surprised as this still goes on today in our contemporary society pretty frequently (think accusations of terrorism). But what is striking in the novel is that Harrison is really nobody, perfectly normal and average. Yes, he writes bestselling novels but they are "fluff" fiction according to his own words. He is not a threat in any capacity to the US government. And yet it is so simple, perhaps deceptively easy to identify him as a communist without evidence. Makes me think about what it means to find someone guilty of such unobservable crimes.
The book's slow introduction isn't a precursor to it's overall storyline. I found myself enraptured as the tale unfolded. I also felt pressed to pick my own brain to see what historical facts I could pull up for context as Harrison navigates the US and Mexico, famous artists and communist leaders. I still need to read up on central american history and it's relationship to the SSSR/Russia in order to really understand all of her references. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable read with an important twist at the end that I had to re-read to make sure I got it.
Also the word lacuna means- gap. This is due to the gaps in the storyline and an important physical place Harrison discovers in his boyhood.
Thanks Barbara for another great story!

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