I bought this book a few years ago in a second-hand bookshop. Then in the new apartment, it ended up on the dreaded shelf with all the books over 380 pages. I probably have some book commitment issues, because any book longer than 380 pages terrifies me. I feel like it’s going to eat weeks of my life and the payoff won’t necessarily be worth it.
You could ask why then did I put all those books together? Do I plan to isolate them to avoid them easier? The answer is no. When a book this thick is on a shelf with normal-sized books it will never get read. I’ll read everything around it only to avoid it. But when you group all those huge tomes together they stop looking special. And then every few months I challenge myself to try something from this shelf. The added advantage is that even if I read just one of those books, I’ve already made a visible dent.
The time for this one came when we were going to Greece for our October holiday. I wanted to take at least one paper book with me and this one made sure I would not finish it too quickly.
First of all, I had to check what does lacuna mean, it is ‘an unfilled space, a gap.’ It can be a gap in the bone, in a rock or in history for that matter. Such a title obviously forces some interpretations of the subsequent story upfront.
The story we read here is one of Harrison Shepherd, born in Washington from Mexican mother and American father. We meet him as a boy on Isla Pixol, living with her mother and her new lover. There he becomes fascinated by Aztec history and discovers his love for diving while exploring a rock lacuna. As his mother is not the most stable of omen soon enough they have to leave. Harrison spends his childhood between various locations in Mexico and the US, where his mother sends him. Eventually, he’ll consciously end up in Mexico, working for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, starting as a gypsum mixer, but gradually becoming a secretary and a friend of the family.
Since childhood Harrison compulsively writes things down, as we are told by the narrator. The narrator gradually reveals herself to be Grownup Harrison’s assistant, who decided t publish and preserve his diaries. while he still lives in Rivera-Kahlo household Lew Trotsky moves in. Harrison becomes involved in the cause with him and becomes his personal assistant. When Trotsky dies he is in danger too, so Frida packs him up and sends him off to the US. with that, all his notebooks are gone.
Harrison ends up in a random US town becoming a teacher and leading an extremely boring and purposeless life. He feels as if his life ended with Trotsky’s death. But then he discovers an unexpected gift from Frida and starts to write again. He quickly becomes a published writer, drawing inspiration from his youthful interest in Aztec history.
As we all know in any decent work of fiction the good things cannot last too long and so it is here. Harrison becomes a suspect during the McCarthy era. With terrifying consequences.
It is a sprawling book, charting one man’s life history. He is not the main character in the mainstream flow, but close enough to it to experience it first hand. Some reviews mention he is not an engaging main character and this feels true. At times I felt like maybe he is the lacuna, the gap filled in by the events. But he may just be a withdrawn observer, which does not make him a lesser personality. We can see from his assistant’s defense of him that other people could get close to him.
For me, it was not a bad book for a week on the beach, where you have time and are not rushed, because it also doesn’t rush. But I can understand some people’s frustration with it. I myself expected more from Kingsolver after The Poisonwood Bible and The Flight Behaviour. I am a bit on the fence about this book, as you can probably tell. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time, but I’ve read far better books by this author.
Did you read Barbara Kingsolver? What is your favorite book by her?
Quotes from The Lacuna