Barbara Kingsolver’s books are like a history lesson. The book covers the life of the fictional Harrison Sheppard and in so doing, captures tumultuous times in Mexico and the United States – the depression, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and its impact on Mexico and America, Trotsky in exile in Mexico, WWII, McCarthyism and Socialism paranoia leading to trampling of Constitutional Rights in the U.S., internment of Axis Nationals during WWII, racial discrimination and much more.
The characters in the novel include famous real life figures like Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky as well as fictional characters like Harrison Sheppard and Violet Brown – a wonderful combination of history and fiction. The theme of the book could be the Communist/Worker’s Movement in Russia, Mexico and the U.S., it could be the art of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, it could be the relationship between art and politics, or it could be one man’s search for a home – it is a monumental tale.
The first half of the book is set in Mexico and we are in the world of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera who helped Leon Trotsky during his years of exile in Mexico. The second half of the book is set in the U.S. Harrison Sheppard becomes a popular writer of fiction but on account of his past association with Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Trotsky, comes under suspicion of being a communist sympathizer and falls victim to the notorious Committee for Un-American Activities. The reader sees how easily an innocent man can fall prey to government bureaucracy and fear mongering by the press.
But Kingsolver’s focus is not Harrison Sheppard or Diego and Frieda or Trotsky or even Mexico. It is the lacuna – the Spanish word meaning ‘space between two objects, the crucial missing piece’. In this case, it could be the space that lingers between the truth and the falsity that is perceived as a truth. There is the press which seeks not to publish the truth but rumours, innuendos or simply printing what another publication has printed e.g. printing that Harrison Sheppard did not serve in the war because he is hearing impaired. The press is like the “howlers” that begin the novel. They simply print what someone else has printed just as the long-tailed monkeys howl on hearing another monkey howl. Similarly the Un-American Activities Committee basis its accusations on imagined crimes and persecutes citizens. Lacuna may also refer to the gaps in Harrison Sheppard’s childhood or his missing journal. I highly recommend this book especially to readers who enjoy fiction set against historical facts.
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.