Barbara Kingsolver magnificently re-creates 1930s Mexico City in her first novel in nine years.
Everyone has plot holes in his life story. The gap in Harrison William Shepherd’s personal narrative is big enough for a grown man to swim through. “The most important part of the story is the piece you don’t know,” he is fond of saying. That piece, as author Barbara Kingsolver helpfully explains, is known as a lacuna.Skip to next paragraph
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Kingsolver (“The Poisonwood Bible”), a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, explores those gaps and the way they can alter people’s lives in The Lacuna, her first novel in nine years. (In between, she also published a bestselling memoir, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” about her family’s efforts to eat locally for one year. You will never look at rhubarb the same way again.) “The Lacuna” may be her most ambitious novel to date.
The national identities of Mexico and America are forged as Shepherd’s life is narrated through a compilation of journal entries, excerpts from memoirs, newspaper clippings – both real and fake – congressional testimony, and notes from Shepherd’s archivist.
Shepherd is a perpetual outsider who essentially raised himself with some help from a kind cook. His mother, a flapper who lived convinced that the next romance was going to be her ticket to riches, brought him to Mexico in the 1920s, but couldn’t be bothered to send him to school for years at a time. While living on an island with his mother and her current lover, Shepherd finds his first lacuna – an underwater tunnel “like a mouth, that swallows things.” Like Alice, he finds that dropping through a hole in the world leads to wonder. “At the end of the tunnel the cave opens up to light, a small salt-water pool in the jungle. Almost perfectly, as big across as this bedchamber, with sky straight up, dappled and bright through the branches.... Piles of stone blocks lay in a jumble around the edges of the pool, a broken-down something made of coral rock. Vines scrambled all over the ruin, their roots curling down through it like fingers in sand. It was a temple or something very ancient.”
His American father, a government employee, seems indifferent to missing the childhood of his only son, but does pony up for military school when Shepherd is a teen. He prefers that the boy not come home for summer vacation. (Shepherd doesn’t even have an official first name: His mother calls him Will; his dad, Harrison.)
During his childhood, Shepherd learns a few useful skills: how to hold his breath underwater for almost two minutes, how to bake, and how to pass through life virtually unnoticed. They all come in handy during the course of the novel, but the second brings him employment after he’s kicked out of military school for unstated reasons and returns to Mexico. (The journal from his last year in high school has been burned, his archivist informs us, but it’s pretty clear to a reader that his expulsion relates to his homosexuality. This would be “the missing piece of the manuscript.”)