The Lacuna

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

One of Barbara Kingsolver’s repeated themes in The Lacuna is that the most interesting part of a story is the part that is not told. A lacuna is a missing or hidden part, and the novel hints at many of them. On the surface, the book tells the life story of Harrison William Shepherd. It begins when he is a child in the 1920’s. His Mexican mother, Salomé, has taken him to her home country to live with her lover after leaving his father, a U.S. government employee. They move frequently as Salomé drifts from lover to lover. Harrison’s schooling is so sporadic that by his teenage years he qualifies only for a school for the mentally deficient. When that school proves unsuitable, he goes to Washington, D.C., where his father enrolls him in a military boarding school.

After being expelled for homosexual behavior, Harrison returns to Mexico. He works for the artist Diego Rivera mixing plaster. Later, he becomes a cook and secretary for Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky takes refuge with the artists. After Trotsky is shot, Kahlo seeks to protect Harrison by having him deliver art to the United States to get him out of the country. Harrison settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes best-selling novels about ancient Mexico. He hires a stenographer, Violet Brown, to help with typing and correspondence.

Harrison is investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which seeks to stop the spread of communism in the United States. He and Violet travel to Mexico, where Harrison fakes his death. Violet compiles his journals and other materials into a book manuscript and has it locked away to be considered for publication in fifty years.

That is the plot of The Lacuna, but, like any good novel, the book goes far beyond its plotline. In this case, the text’s lacunae are important parts of the story. As a child living on Isla Pixol in Mexico, Harrison discovers the novel’s first lacuna: He learns that the cliffs along the ocean contain caves that are underwater at high tide. He learns to hold his breath long enough to swim into one of these caves. There, he finds that it is a tunnel leading into a pond where the Aztecs left gifts for the gods and made human sacrifices.

Another lacuna occurs at the end of the novel, when readers are led to believe that Harrison has drowned. Violet learns the truth several years later, when she receives a drawing from Frida Kahlo’s estate with a cryptic message on it. Readers learn that he is alive from her account of that gift. Another missing piece of the story is the journal that tells why Harrison was expelled from school. Occasional comments in his later journals make it clear that he was caught engaging in homosexual activity with another student, but few of the details are revealed.

The novel is formatted as a compilation of various types of written documents, creating an exploration of how readers acquire information and misinformation. In fact, a major theme of the work is how and why misunderstandings are created. Its first words introduce this theme by describing the “howlers” Harrison hears every morning as a child on Isla Pixol in Mexico. He and his mother think these howlers are demons who eat human flesh. It turns out that they are only monkeys. The novel includes the beginning of Harrison’s memoir, his journals, newspaper articles, letters, notes from Violet about the materials included in her manuscript, and the transcript of a hearing. By juxtaposing these texts, readers construct a narrative and discover the lacunae within it.

The beginning of Harrison’s memoir is a rewritten version of his first childhood journal, presented from an adult perspective. His other journals remain in the format of dated entries. While much of the novel derives from Harrison’s journals, though, Violet is in a large way the story’s creator, since she has compiled them for a manuscript. The extent to which she edited Harrison’s writing is not clear. Harrison thought that Violet burned the journals to destroy potentially damaging evidence when he was being investigated by Congress. In fact, she burned only one, the one he kept while he was a teenager at the Potomac Academy. She explains in her notes that she burned that one because it contained something Harrison did not want others to read. She admits that he wanted the other journals destroyed also but does not clarify why she kept all but one.

While Violet might have manipulated the material in...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 106, no. 2 (September 15, 2009): 5.

The Bookseller, no. 5407 (November 6, 2009): 55.

The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2009, p. Books-25.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 17 (September 1, 2009): 909-910.

Library Journal 134, no. 17 (October 15, 2009): 67.

The New York Times Book Review, November 8, 2009, p. 9.

The New Yorker 85, no. 38 (November 23, 2009): 113.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 33 (August 17, 2009): 1.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009, p. 23.