"It should have been like a storybook here": these are the words of a boy in the opening scene of The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s dazzling manipulation of storytelling. The boy, Harrison Shepherd, is on Isla Pixol to be exact, transported to this island by his Mexican mother, Salomé, who’s in pursuit of the first of her moneybag lovers. Story begetting story, Salomé exhibits herself dancing. The sweep of years in the novel, from the Great Depression to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, is noted with care. It’s 1929: the boy has a pasteboard notebook in which he writes poems and stories, a practice he will continue, a life’s sentence. He judges his youthful scribbling is not up to the adventures he’s been reading–The Count of Monte Cristo, the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Yet the boy writes his own fable of a fish. The Tragic Tale of Señor Pez is extracted from his journal, set on the page for the reader; Señor Pez is awarded a noble burial with "everything needed for his journey into the second world."
Reading The Lacuna is a fast-forward pleasure, but it’s worth turning back to decode the writer’s early entries. Kingsolver’s grand-scale novel has a mystery built in. Start with the title: is it the luminous sea cave the boy dives into at his peril?
"Laguna? The lagoon?"
Leandro, the cook at the hacienda where Shepherd and his mother idle, explains the sea caves of the island as God’s creation, though the boy knows they are hollows in volcanic rock. Kingsolver has a fine gift for the imagery of nature. Readers of her bestselling The Poisonwood Bible (1998) may recall the foreboding opening passage, set in the Congo: "The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason…. The forest eats itself and lives forever." The lacuna of this novel is more than island scenery, more than a misnomer or mistranslation. "Underneath the ocean is a world without people. The sea-roof rocks overhead as you drift between the purple trees of the coral forest…. It’s a perfect world down there, except for the one of them who can’t breathe water." More than a boy’s sport, lacuna is the missing text of a manuscript provided by an amanuensis who comes to the aid and defense of the writer Harrison Shepherd. The archivist’s notes, discreetly signed VB, reveal that Shepherd had been writing a memoir, noting that "the pages preceding are plainly not from the hand of a boy." We will not know Violet Brown until she is written into the very pages that have been blessed with, promoted by, her editorial guidance.
The Lacuna makes dramatic use of its settings; the first move is Isla Pixol to Mexico City, where Salomé places her son with artsy folks. He will connect to the studios of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which is more than plausible in a novel that nurtures our disbelief. Diego and Frida are awarded dimension: their fractured marriage and revolutionary politics, so often mythologized, are woven into Shepherd’s story. He is dealt a job mixing the plaster for Diego’s murals, rather like kneading dough with Leandro, then advances to typist/secretary, all the while recording his hosts’ illustrious lives. Kingsolver’s moves are as bold as Frida’s bright costumes and colors on canvas. Set into play by VB, her characters gain texture as though released from their iconic roles in Rivera’s murals. In a staged scene, over-instructive as a schoolroom skit, the assistant is lectured by the great painter of socialist frescoes about the life and times of Lenin. Diego reports on the great loss after Lenin’s death, on Stalin’s rise to power and his cruel pursuit of Trotsky, "the populist with scruples." I bristle at his schoolroom summary of the major players in the Russian Revolution, but I’m won over by a clever line delivered by the boy: "It’s a good story, señor. Strictly from the point of view of plot. May I ask, what was the accident of history?"