Monday, September 20, 2010

Guest Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

For those of you who missed the post, we here at the Blue Bookcase are looking to expand our horizons and add a new writer! (Or more than one, perhaps) This continues our session of "test-runs" for writers who look promising, so let's give a warm welcome to guest reviewer/aspiring BB writer, Christina! Be sure to comment and tell us what you think! (And for other interested writers, it's not too late to apply! Check out this post for more details)

I'm Christina, and I live in and love North Carolina. My husband and I have two very little children, and before they came along I worked in libraries. I'll read just about anything. Except fantasy. And sci-fi. My favorites are generally character-driven novels with long timelines and a strong sense of place. Think Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Jonathan Safran Foer. On the nonfiction end, I love medical narratives (especially Atul Gawande) and humorous essays (especially David Foster Wallace). I read quite a bit, but sometimes it takes me ages to finish a book; I tend to savor books I really like and dole out little portions to myself because I know that when it's over, it'll be over, and then I'll be sad. But enough about me! Let’s talk about the book.

Published: 2009

It’s about: The Lacuna is a compilation of journals, letters, newspaper articles, minutes, and archivist’s notes by and about Harrison Shepherd (1916-1951). The fictional Shepherd, a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, is a writer who worked as a cook in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and then in the compound of Lev Trotsky. As an adult he returns to the U.S. and writes several bestselling novels as the world is transitioning from WWII to the Cold War.

I thought: This is a masterful book that paints a convincing, complex portrait of a fictional character within a framework of multiple factual settings, persons, and cultures. As always, Barbara Kingsolver's writing is beautiful and poignant, with each character’s voice distinct from the others'. Violet Brown, Shepherd’s stenographer, assistant, and longtime platonic companion, speaks and writes in a peculiar Appalachian dialect (her backcountry sister even more so). The letters and dialogue of Tom Cuddy, Shepherd’s flame, are saturated with distinctive 1940’s-era slang. I was particularly impressed with how Shepherd’s voice gradually changed as he grew into an adult. His emotional yet reserved personality resonated with me and he felt very real.

The Lacuna’s plot delves into a bunch of issues and historical events that were quite new to me. To name a few: MacCarthy’s squelching of the Bonus Army Riot in 1932, Trotsky’s role in the Soviet Union, and the crucible-esque Second Red Scare. I know many readers are turned off by Ms. Kingsolver’s tendency to wax political. Okay, it’s not just a tendency; every book she writes has activism overtones. This doesn’t bother me, personally, because I happen to lean to the left myself. And she writes her characters so well. They never feel like setups for her political motives.

I particularly enjoyed the archivey format and the blend of fictional characters with historical people and happenings. Quite original, quite engaging. I love to feel like I’m learning something when I’m reading fiction, and this book (as with Kingsolver’s others) definitely provided that.

Verdict: Shelf!

Reading Recommendations: I never think it’s okay to develop a strong opinion about a something historical based solely on a work of fiction. There may be some people/issues/events in this book that you’ll want to fact-check before you let your emotions run away with you.

Warnings: There is a little language. There wasn’t anything terribly explicit, and I liked the book as a whole so much that I would still recommend it to, say, my mom.

Favorite Excerpts: I wrote a bunch in my book journal, but here is my absolute favorite:
“’…next thing you know they’ll be calling a spade a spade.’
‘Calling a rake a rake,’ I proposed, opening the roadster full throttle on the parkway, letting the curves pull us, feeling their out-bound gravity. The world blurred, the April trees lit up with pale green flames, scenes flashed by, falling water, swinging bridges strung across rocky ravines. Windows wide open, the full breath of spring of dirt of new life stirring in the breast of whatever was left for dead, all that rushed at us now. Tommy’s hair shuddered golden in the wind. He is a rake, a rake, the blinding shine of him reflected in the windscreen, Tommy’s glint and glory. Tommy’s hand laid here and there as if it hardly mattered, making me want to wreck the car. To find speed, drive myself deep into it.”