The Lacuna [Barbara Kingsolver]

Work meant sitting in his library running both hands through his slick hair, drinking mezcal, and sweating through his collar while working out colonnades of numbers.  By this means he learned whether he had money up to his moustache this week, or only up to his bollocks

Any doubts about The Lacuna were dispelled by the phrase that ended with “..or only up to his bollocks”
The words of Harrison Shepherd, whose acerbic wit and unflinching descriptions of the people, places and situations around him, drive this juggernaut of a novel, and which are drip fed to the reader in the form of diaries and letters, and intersped (in the second half) with newspaper articles.

Dragged south of the border by his moth like mother, Salome, who flits between men as bulbs, attracted by their money and power, she seems to believe that when her scheming finally pays off, Harrison will benefit as much as she will.

It was such a monument of accusation, even Mother had to bow her head a little as she crept past it, sins dripping from her shoes as we walked round the nave, leaving invisible puddles on the clean tiles.  Perhaps God said her name was mud.  He would have to yell more than three times, for her to hear.

He ends up working in the household of Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, and as his mum flits around in the background, Frida becomes almost the centre of the novel, the core that Harrison winds around as he grows up.  The arrival of Lev Trotsky enthralls Harrison, and his time with the exiled Bolshevik leader is dutifully recorded in his journals.  Following his time with Lev Harrison moves back to the US during the second world war, and despite my initial interest in the book being it’s Mexican setting, it is the second half of the book that gripped me more.

After the end of the war, the US and Russia square up to each other and Harrison, by now a successful author, comes under scrutiny by the Committee of Un-American Activities and his diary entries fill with his bewilderment and comment on the state of the US, from it’s emerging economy driven by snazzy advertisments to the newspapers, whose fawning adulation turns to persecution as he is painted by a communist.  His fear of the media, and of engaging with them ultimately harms him, as they take free rein to paint their own picture of the communist in the heartland.

I read this at the time of the release of the Leveson inquiry report in the UK, and this book demonstrates the power of words, and through them the power of newspapers and others who wield them.  A paranoid government driving a paranoid population, condemning a man, in the end, on words he wrote in a story.  It is out of this one sided narrative that The Lacuna emerges, the hole, the other side, the part you don’t know about the man in the newspapers.

Of course we do” she said, sighing deeply as if to say “men do this.” And that is a fact, men do, unable to resist the same impulse that built the thing in the first place: senseless ambition.

The format of The Lacuna makes it a rolling read, you can read as much or as little as you like in small chunks and Harrison’s diary entries are genuinely funny at times, even in his most dire situations he finds humour, and paints the other characters of his life with both wit and compassion, while holding an honest account of himself and his life.

People contort themselves around the terror of being alone, making any compromise against that.  It’s a great freedom to give up on love, and get on with everything else.

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