Sunday, March 26, 2017

Barbara Kingsolver, THE LACUNA

I think this might be my new favorite book of 2017. Beautifully written, epic, big-hearted, wide-ranging. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Forrest Gump, the story features an engaging, curious protagonist and spans years. It's told through journals, letters, scraps of paper, newspaper reviews, and official documents, and is assembled and framed by a woman who is nameless at the beginning ("VB") but later is revealed to be Violet Brown, who serves as the protagonist's stenographer (and friend). The protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is first shown as a young man, born in America but relocated as a teen to Mexico with his peripatetic and unstable mother; he takes a job as plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, and befriends Rivera's wife, Frieda Khalo, and their friend Lev Trotsky; he eventually becomes a successful novelist, writing about ancient Mexico. His voice is thoughtful and often very clever and wryly amusing. I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins.

The villain that evolves in this book is the irresponsible press, which possesses a rabid craving for gossip, sensationalism, and fear-mongering about communists in the late 1940s and '50s, and which invents outright lies about Shepherd to satisfy the public. The accusations mount against him; his trial devolves into farce. (The "noose around his neck" is some words spoken by one of the boy characters in his second book, which a book review presents as the views of Shepherd himself; this is reprinted in 61 magazines worldwide, becoming solid proof of his communist leanings.) But the furious energy for persecution of people perceived as Other made my heart ache.

Themes range widely: art, love, homosexuality, the power of the written word, war, politics, what it means to be seen and known by another person, what is missing from a story and why it's important, what it means to be betrayed, and then saved again. Kingsolver even manages a happy ending, like the ones Harrison's readers want from him. Gratitude to my friend Mame for giving me a signed copy a while back; and to my bookclub for picking it, which meant I pulled it off my "to read" shelf.

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