Sunday, June 3, 2018

Book Review: "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

I'd like to start out by saying that I am a fan of Barbara Kingsolver. I have now read all of her novels, sans her nonfiction work and essays. I had just finished listening to her narration of her book Flight Behavior through Audible, and was excited that my book club had chosen The Lacuna as the next read.

I don't want to say I was disappointed, but I was surprised. Kingsolver's stories usually have compelling characters at the helm, narrators that become something like friends. But in The Lacuna, our protagonist is so distant from the reader that the work suffers to deliver us a truly satisfying story. With a passive protagonist, the question becomes "who is steering this story?", and the answer is so clearly Kingsolver's interest in history. Our protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is a leaf on the wind of history, like Forrest Gump, but way less interesting. I'm on board with this approach, but not at the sacrifice of a character I care about to bring me through the times.

The novel is an ambitious endeavor for Kingsolver, and a return to the scene after nine years without publishing anything. I imagine much of that time was filled with research for The Lacuna, which spans across the U.S. and Mexico, the great depression, the surrealist art movement, WWII, Japanese internment, communism and the red scare. It's an ambitious stretch through History, and definitely provokes reflection upon some of the darker aspects of America's past. Many parallels can be drawn between the political environment of post WWII America and today's national climate, especially when it comes to journalism.

Where I think the book misses the mark is with a passive protagonist and countless missed opportunities to really understand him. Kingsolver designed the book to read like a postmortem biography of Harrison William Shepherd, so I can see how there would be an element of un-know-ability. However, when it came to glimpses of Shepherd's sexuality, intimate relationships, PTSD, and internal monologue, they remained only that: glimpses. The reader is left to fill in the gaps with their own perception, which brings us to the title of the book: The Lacuna, a gap in something, in this case a gap in understanding why we should care about our Shepherd through Kingsolver's history lesson.

“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don't know.” 

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