A journey through history with a man who’d rather be alone
Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, her first in nine years, has two beginnings. In the first, a “chorus of saucer eyed devils’’ screams like “saw blades’’ every dawn, terrifying 12-year-old Harrison Shepherd and his mother, Salome, both newly arrived at Isla Pixol, Mexico. Don Enrique, their host and the first of Salome’s partners, delights in their terror; he waits a year before revealing that these devils are actually monkeys marking their territory.
The second beginning, which is “also true,’’ describes Harrison’s fascination with the “perfect’’ world beneath the ocean. The terrors that lie there are real: “The rule of fishes is the same as the rule of people: if the shark comes, they will all escape and leave you to be eaten.’’ These images make us wonder if Harrison will learn to see through his fear or be devoured by it. Can he dive into the lacuna, the great “mouth’’ that leads to the “belly of the world’’ and come out the other side?
“The Lacuna’’ starts in 1929, when Salome has left her husband in the United States and returned to Mexico to live with Enrique. It follows Harrison for more than 20 years, from Isla Pixol to Mexico City to Washington, D.C., back to Mexico City, then to Asheville, N.C. There’s also a side trip to Merida in the Yucatán Peninsula.
After the novel’s first few pages, Harrison tells his own story; he is a diarist and letter writer, a recorder of events and a novelist, a translator and amanuensis. He loses and recovers his manuscripts, journals, and friends. Among others, he meets Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, John Dewey, and several FBI agents. He observes fiestas, Masses, artistic and political salons, police and demonstrator violence, fan adoration, and an assassination.
Early in the novel, his journal entries feel somewhat like Mexican history served light; occasionally they read like guidebooks. But through it all, those around him share their feelings, admire his cooking, and take him along on trysts. Harrison is a “hybrid,’’ a man of two languages and more than two names. Frida calls him “Insolito,’’ his mother calls him by his middle name, Will, Diego calls him “sweet buns,’’ and Trotsky calls him “son.’’ Women are drawn to him but he prefers men.
Harrison observes the Depression and World War II, and he sits in on Trotsky’s life in Mexico under the care of Rivera and Kahlo. In fact, Kahlo charges him with the task of recording Trotsky’s conversations just as his mother had asked him to write the story of “what happened to us in Mexico.’’ He has a great memory for the details of conversations but withholds his own thoughts.
As an adult, Harrison is diffident and even private about his own preferences. His books are wildly popular, but he is reclusive and deeply embarrassed by his fame and the fans gathering outside his front door. In Cold War America, meanwhile, his refusal to be interviewed invites suspicion; and the press is as terrifying in their distortions as those ring-tailed monkeys.
We want to care about Harrison; his mother is wild and crazy, he basically raises himself, he is an avaricious but barely schooled reader. Still, the reader may find that Harrison’s inherent privacy simply makes him disengaged and unattractive. For sure he is caught in his own personal lacuna, and we are left to wonder if he has the strength to fight off the sharks that pursue him.
Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.