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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Historical fiction gets literary facelift in ‘The Lacuna’

    “”Dios habla por el que calla.”” God speaks for the silent man.

    Such is the mantra of Harrison Shepherd, the half-Mexican cook-turned-novelist upon whose life Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel “”The Lacuna”” centers.

    God may speak for the silent man, but Kingsolver, it seems, has taken it upon herself to speak for a whole host of far-from-silent historical figures. The book follows Shepherd’s life from 1929 through his death in 1951, the setting alternating between Mexico and the United States. We meet Shepherd when he is just a boy, living with his beautiful, dramatic mother and her wealthy Mexican lover on Isla Pixol, Mexico. The novel follows Shepherd’s boyhood in Mexico, but doesn’t truly pick up until he meets the legendary Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and finds himself living in their house as a cook. When exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky seeks sanctuary with Kahlo and Rivera, Shepherd is pulled suddenly into the extraordinary world of revolutionaries and international intrigue.

    It is Kingsolver’s portrayal of these historical figures, in particular Trotsky and Kahlo, that is both most interesting and frustrating. Both are fascinating characters, brought deftly to life through the young Shepherd’s eyes. Kahlo is regal, moody, captivating and often cruel; Trotsky is kind, thoughtful and brilliant. Shepherd forms important friendships with both, though his relationship with Kahlo is often complicated by her harsh, self-serving nature. In one instance, she mercilessly teases Shepherd about his secret longing for another man, in front of the man himself. Kingsolver’s Trotsky is part Bolshevik revolutionary, part jolly old Saint Nick, and the only person in Shepherd’s life, he notes at one point, to ever call him “”son.””

    Kingsolver’s brushstrokes are often too broad when portraying these characters. Frida becomes, at moments in the novel, a caricature of a capricious artist, impossible to take seriously. Kingsolver lingers on descriptions of Frida’s famed attire — the crowns of flowers and ribbons in her hair, the full peasant skirts and vivid blouses — giving the reader a sense of the myth of Frida Kahlo more than the actual woman. Trotsky, too, often seems more of an archetype than a man. He is the “”good guy”” to Stalin’s bad guy, the true idealist behind the worker’s revolution, the man who could save the world, if only everyone wasn’t trying to kill him. Orwell’s Snowball is thorny and cantankerous compared to Kingsolver’s Trotsky.

    After Trotsky’s murder in Mexico — a scene written with pitch-perfect horror — Shepherd moves to the U.S., settling in Asheville, N.C. There, he begins a successful career as a novelist. There also, his past associations catch up with him when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigates him. Kingsolver captures the mindless, media-driven hysteria of the time expertly, especially through Shepherd’s utter bewilderment at the government’s interest in him. “”I was a cook,”” he tells his lawyer bemusedly after learning he is under investigation.

    Kingsolver’s ambitious new novel covers a great deal of ground historically, geographically and emotionally. For the most part, she finds success. The book is full of achingly gorgeous prose, especially when the setting shifts to Mexico. The opening descriptions of Harrison’s life on Isla Pixol, from the howler monkeys that wake him each morning to the strange, secret underwater cave he discovers, are particularly thrilling. Kingsolver is at her best when entrenched in exotic settings, as seen in her masterpiece novel of the Congo, “”The Poisonwood Bible.”” Though this book does not strike quitethe emotional chords that “”The Poisonwood Bible”” managed, it is still a lovely, impressive work, well worth getting lost in.

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