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'The Lacuna,' Kingsolver's Vacant Return

The Lacuna is Barbara Kingsolver's first new novel in nine years. Interest in it is unusually fierce for a work of literary fiction. Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target are engaged in a price war against booksellers over the hot late fall/early winter releases. Almost all of the blockbuster books in question are works of genre fiction — suspense and horror stories by the likes of James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham. The Lacuna is the only literary novel caught in the cross hairs of this sales skirmish.

Kingsolver deserves kudos, if only because she seems to be single-handedly keeping consumer zest alive for the literary novel. I wish I could say she also deserves kudos for writing a spectacular work of fiction, but to tell you the truth, it's just — at best — so-so. In fact, as a piece of historical fiction, it has a lot in common with those conventional works of genre fiction that Amazon and the big box stores are hawking at cut-rate bargain prices.

A serious problem with The Lacuna is telegraphed in its striking title. "Lacuna" refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character. Our hero, Harrison Shepherd, is an accidental onlooker to history buffeted by other people's plans and passions. As he tells a friend late in the novel, "What we end up calling history is a kind of knife, slicing down through time. A few people are hard enough to bend its edge. But most people won't even stand close to the blade. I'm one of those. [I] don't bend anything."

The passive Harrison was born in the U.S. to a dim American father and a firecracker of a Mexican mother who is eternally on the prowl for a richer husband. In 1929, when Harrison is 12 years old, his mother snags a big Mexican landowner, and she takes her son to live on her lover's estate. Adrift, Harrison spends his days swimming and learning how to cook from the kitchen staff. When he runs into the artist Frida Kahlo at the local market, Harrison goes home with her and puts his dough-rolling skills to use by mixing plaster for Kahlo's husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.

Eventually, Lev "Leon" Trotsky moves into the household, and Harrison becomes his secretary as well as a witness to Trotsky's assassination by one of Stalin's agents. Later, as a young adult living back in the States, Harrison is targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his past association with revolutionaries. Throughout all the artistic, political and erotic turmoil swirling through the Kahlo-Rivera household, Harrison has kept a diary, which is published posthumously and composes the novel we're reading.

Kingsolver's aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of history, the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key players. As Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, "Greatness is very boring." The politically incorrect truth is, however, that ordinariness oftentimes is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point of view isn't all that illuminating. Neither are the actual newspaper accounts of Trotsky's assassination and the Red Scare that Kingsolver includes here — accounts that break the, by now, not-so-startling news that "official history" contains lies.

When masters of post-modern historical fiction like E.L. Doctorow or Don DeLillo or even, arguably, Toni Morrison shake up received narratives about the past, it's with the intention of making readers see something fresh, something larger — even mythic — in familiar events. Kingsolver falls short of that ambition and, instead, ends on an old-fashioned sentimental note, inviting readers to feel affection for the Zelig-like Harrison and a life not quite lived.

I admit it: I'm mystified. To me, The Lacuna is an all too appropriate title for a novel that feels altogether vacant.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.