Book Review: Kingsolver novel ponders idea of societal lacuna

A lacuna, a missing part, is exactly what bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver creates with in her newest novel, The Lacuna. Beautifully written, Kingsolver paints an image of life without a history, living with gaps.

Beginning in 1929 in Mexico, the novel follows a rather detached Harrison William Shepherd through a series of journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings from age 12 until the documents run out. The format should not be a deterrent for readers, however. Unlike many novels of its kind, the style gives an interesting view into the lives of the characters. The writing is easy to read, both graceful and natural with a comedic edge to Shepherd's narration.

The first half of the novel is, by far, the most interesting. At age 12, Shepherd leaves the United States to return to his homeland, Mexico, with his mother and live in her lover's home. As a foreigner himself, Shepherd sees and writes with a vivid curiosity for the beautiful.

Mexican culture is painted in vibrant colors with far more attention to the little things - angelfish in the ocean or the art of creating a perfect pastry - than the politics of the country. Shepherd, however, is eventually thrown in the center of Mexico's politics when he gets a job working for the Riveras.

The plot becomes really fascinating when artists Diego Rivera and the formidable Frida Kahlo enter the picture. Shepherd starts off mixing plaster for Diego's murals and eventually becomes a part of the household staff. Kingsolver lets readers get to know the strange couple through Shepherd's observations, which are impressively insightful for a teenage boy.

Kahlo is an entrancing character and her presence is felt throughout the story, despite her disappointing absence in the second half. Both playful and terrifying, with her extravagant garb and the well-known eyebrow, the world seems to revolve around her.

True to history, Leon Trotsky, the exiled leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, takes up house with the Riveras as Joseph Stalin thrives in the Soviet Union and a dozen other communists gather under the roof. It's a spectacular image and Shepherd documents it all while struggling with his sexuality and his growing desire to be a novelist.

Eventually, Shepherd returns to America where a different battle is going on: World War II. It's an entirely different dynamic from life in Mexico and frankly a little boring in comparison. The middle portion is a bit slow, but picks up in due course. Kingsolver manages to capture the hope of the Americans during WWII, who shipped out their hairpins and dental plates to be melted down and made into bombs. She likewise describes the fear as the Red Scare takes control.

There's a difference between Mexicans and Americans throughout the novel that Kingsolver is careful to make clear: Mexicans remember their roots, but Americans cut theirs away. There's no denying history when it's an overshadowing pyramid commemorating the ancient gods.

Although there is no gasp of revelation or sigh of contentment at the end, Kingsolver leaves readers with the feeling that they've been missing something all along, which makes you stop and consider the possible lacuna in American society.