The Lacuna
Barbara Kingsolver
Faber, distributed by Penguin,
Rs 550, 507 pages

“I think our first responsibility, and also our first treasure as writers, is to represent ourselves,” Barbara Kingsolver said in an interview early in her career. She was speaking specifically of women’s writing; and even at that stage of her writing life, 15 years ago, she was instinctively suspicious of categories. “But when I’m writing I don’t really think, ‘Who’s going to read this?’ I don’t feel my books are mainly for women. When students ask, “Is this a chick book?” I say, “Moby Dick is a whale book, but I don’t think only whales should read it.”

The Lacuna, her Orange-Prize winning novel, both defies and celebrates the stereotypes of “women’s writing”. One of its central characters is the painter Frida Kahlo, and as always, Kingsolver is brilliant at the art of getting inside the mind and emotional life of a complex, creative woman like Kahlo. The protagonist is a writer, Harrison Shepherd, whose childhood was split between Mexico and the US, giving him an insider-outsider identity. And Kingsolver’s concerns in The Lacuna are as always, sharply political, as she explores the McCarthy era and the communist witch-hunts, and the uses and pitfalls of revolutions in general. To summarise, this novel was not written exclusively for whales.

Over her life as a writer, Kingsolver’s personal beliefs and her political views have infused her books. The Poisonwood Bible was, until The Lacuna, called her “most ambitious” work, and it’s the novel that brought her a fame she has accepted with great unease. It’s probably one of the great works, not just about the history of the Congo in the 1960s, but about the cost of apathy and oblivion; closing your eyes to the world around you is not, in Kingsolver’s belief system, a valid way to live. One of her earliest novels, The Bean Tree, was a hard look at the economic and social changes that accompany motherhood; Prodigal Summer reflected Kingsolver’s growing concerns for the environment. In all of these novels, though, the human side of the story remained central—she loved and worked on her characters as much as she worked on conveying her political vision.

The Lacuna starts with fear and discovery: in Mexico, the young Harrison’s dreams are haunted by the howling of what he and his mother, Salome, think are saucer-eyed devils, though the real creatures are far more innocuous. Early on, the world of the sea will become one of the first of the alien worlds he will immerse himself in and disappear into, repeating this discovery in later years with his writing. The first section of the book is set in the time of the revolution; Harrison’s mother is a fickle charmer, whose partners are almost always on the wrong side of the Mexican Revolution. The story is told through his diaries, and here Kingsolver’s craft is flawless, as she allows the boy’s voice to grow into the man’s sure, more guarded, writer’s words.

Kahlo and Diego Riviera will walk through the narrative, rich, true-to-life presences—but for those who don’t know much about these two great painters, this part of the novel may seem opaque, almost inscrutable. Harrison shifts between Mexico, where he has roots and an identity, despite the floating world of their home life, and the US, where he is just another immigrant in the often harsh world of the gringos. And his story is not complete: “People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it’s called. The hole in the story, and this one truly missing still.”

In the second half of the novel, the lacuna will make itself felt. As Kingsolver analyses the workings of revolution, a stiffness enters her prose—we’re reading about people talking about revolution, in didactic or perfunctory ways, rather than about the ways in which Trotsky, Stalin and co impacted and sometimes devastated their lives. The US is seized by its own paranoia—the McCarthy era is upon Harrison, and his earlier association in Mexico with revolutionaries who spoke of communism and communist leaders with approval is dragged out, now that he is a famous writer.
This is the real lacuna, more than even the missing portions of his history. There is a gap between the writer’s complex, intimate world, his understanding of the quiet betrayals and high ideals of revolution—and the public role that he is called upon to play. “I grew up in Mexico, in the Revolution,” Shepherd says. “Being a Communist was just an ordinary household thing. About like fish on Fridays.”

If Kingsolver had been able to keep the interminable conversations shorter, instead of making them vehicles for well-meaning but polemical arguments, The Lacuna would have been much more than just an ambitious, and worthy, novel. It seems frivolous when so much is spread out on her generous table to ask for entertainment and engagement as well, but for all its virtues, the politics of The Lacuna eventually override its narrative.

For those who’ve loved Kingsolver’s work over the years, The Lacuna is worth your time, for its portrait of a writer, and two artists, as much as for the intensity of its debates. But be aware that as a novel, it never recovers from the missing hole in the story.