Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite authors, so when I was asked if I wanted to review her latest novel, The Lacuna, I jumped at the chance. But then the book sat unread on my shelf for ages—I felt intimidated by its size and its “historical fiction-ness.”

The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s most ambitious novel to date, is the fictional memoir of Harrison William Shepherd, a half-Mexican, half-American boy growing up in the early twentieth century. Kingsolver paints this story on a wide canvas that stretches from Mexico to the U.S., from 1929 to the 1950s and from the Great Depression to the McCarthy era and the heights of yellow journalism. Told mainly through journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings (both real and fictional), The Lacuna seamlessly blends historical fact with fiction. Many of the characters are recognizable historical figures (Frida Kalho, Diego Rivera and Leon [Lev] Trotsky being the main ones). I know relatively little about this period in history, but it’s clear that Kingsolver has thoroughly researched it, and she immerses her readers in the sights and sounds of this period, sprinkling the text with both American slang and Spanish words. (Though I made a list of over 100 terms I was unfamiliar with, for the most part they are understandable enough from the context or explained within the novel—I just wanted to look up what they meant exactly.)

In many ways, Shepherd nearly writes himself out of his own narrative—in his journal entries, he often refers to himself in the third person—but this device works (mostly) as he is very much an observer of the events transpiring around him, especially as a child and young man. My favourite section of the book is set in Mexico during the time he spent with Frida and Diego—Frida is especially memorable: prickly and yet sympathetic, her character leapt off the page.

However, Shepherd’s later life in the U.S. fell a bit flat for me: his self-effacing habits became somewhat frustrating because it is in this period that he is most actively affected by historical events (or at least more participant than observer)—the highlights of this section were his vivid letters to Frida.

These are a few of my favourite quotes, to illustrate the richness of Kingsolver’s language:

“An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery. Every day, more fragments of the past roll around heavily in the chambers of an empty brain, shedding bits of color, a sentence or a fragrance, something that changes and then disappears. It drops like a stone to the bottom of the cave.” (p. 258)
“I didn’t say what Frida would have. That you can’t really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece: the birthday like an invisible piƱata hanging great and silent over his head, as he stands in his slippers boiling the water for coffee. The scarred, shrunken leg hidden under a green silk dress. A wife and son back in France. Something you never knew. That is the heart of the story.” (p. 325)
I want to say more about the epic scope of this book, which deals with themes of identity and the intersection of art and politics (among other things), but I already feel like I’m giving away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that The Lacuna is a breathtaking story, well worth reading (which I devoured in three days in the end!).

Thank you to Harper Collins for sending me this book to review.

The Lacuna is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in September and October (along with several other of Kingsolver’s books). Visit these other blogs for reviews:

Lit and LifePresenting Lenore’Til We Read AgainRaging Bibliomania* • The Lost EntwifeIn the Next RoomBookworm’s Dinner

*Skip the first paragraph to avoid spoilers.

Other reviews:

A Book SanctuaryAmused, Bemused, and ConfusedFyrefly’s Book BlogMari ReadsRatskellar ReadsThe Parenthesis and the Footnote


  1. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews on this one -- sounds like you enjoyed it except for the latter part of the story. I haven't read any Kingsolver yet, so I may skip this one when I start.

  2. I'll remember to try this book after I finish The Poisonwood Bible, which I'm enjoying. Nice review!

  3. The reviews of this book have been mixed so I'm glad to see you liked it. I'm a big Kingsolver fan.

  4. Excellent review! One of my daughters read a Kingsolver novel this summer, The Poisonwood Bible, which I will also read.

  5. Sounds intriguing! I'm yet to read Kingsolver, might start with The Poisonwood Bible rather that Lacuna, though. I've heard so much good things about The Poisonwood Bible.


  6. I am so intimidated by this book, in fact all of Barbara Kingsolver's books! I've been considering reading this one so many times, but keep putting it off.

  7. I happened upon this one on my library sale rack for 50 cents!! Can't wait to read it now!

  8. First time I hear of this author. Will look him up on Goodreads further.

    Great review and hop the holidays went well.
    Welcome back girl!

  9. I really want to read this...I loved THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

    THANKS for the review.

  10. I started reading this one, and never finished. I'm not sure why. I may have to give it another chance.

  11. Given the mixed reviews on this book, I am really glad to see how much you loved it, Avis! I have this one on my TBR stack...and now I am looking forward to reading it :)

  12. I'm glad that you didn't let this book intimidate you enough so that you never read it - and to think, in the end it just took you three days! I'm really excited to pick this one up myself since I've really enjoyed the other Kingsolver books I've read.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  13. This one is on my wishlist, and I LOVE historical fiction, so hopefully, I will be able to get it in the house soon!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  14. I can't wait to read this. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much!