The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver


The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver seems to be inspired by people and their absences. At first, it seems the novel’s namesake refers to the geological formation called la lacuna, “[n]ot a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things” (35). Harrison Shepherd, the novel’s narrator, discovers a lacuna on a beach in Mexico, only accessible when the tides are just right. Harrison, a boy when the story begins, is drawn to the cavity in the lava rock and the remains of ancient civilizations that lay inside. But the novel introduces other lacunas, other gaps and absences in Shepherd’s captivating life and story, one that intersects with epic figures like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Senator McCarthy, as well as epic civilizations, from World War II U.S. to the Aztec empire. Gaps in his journals mean gaps in the story, either lost or purposely burned, interrupting (or perhaps emphasizing) Shepherd’s story. Shepherd himself is a reserved, if not quick-witted, narrator whose perspective allows us to witness these pivotal decades with cynical yet careful eyes. With the lacuna in mind, readers are reminded that there are always gaps, and that we can’t know the whole story, even if its careful compilation sits in your own hands.

“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.” -Barbara Kingsolver

My introduction to Barbara Kingsolver was The Poisonwood Bible, probably her most well-known book. Whereas Poisonwood Bible looked at a contained community through the eyes of an entire family, Lacuna almost reverses this structure by choosing one character to witness broad geographical and historical reaches. But even with the structural change, it still felt genuinely Kingsolver to me, with its careful attention to detail, vividly painted foreign lands and time periods, and the broad depictions posing questions about art and politics, revolution, media, home, and the very nature of archiving history. The second part of the novel—Harrison’s move from Mexico to North Carolina—marks a serious drop in pace. A little difficult to get through, especially as the tone matures and grows more serious and introspective, but it picks up as the outside world begins to knock on Shepherd’s door. Overall, the life of Harrison Shepherd, because of (rather than despite) all its lacunas, was a joy to read.

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