Monday, 26 April 2010

Shoes of giant people

When Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was published ten years ago, it won the powerful acclaim of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. Now her first full-length novel since then has been shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

The Lacuna is an epic tale which sweeps from the vibrancy of 1930s Mexico to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the US in the late 1940s and 1950s. The narrative is seen through the eyes of writer Harrison Shepherd, the son of a remote American father and a capricious, social-climbing mother who brings him up in her native Mexico.

From early childhood Shepherd keeps a diary. This comes stunningly alive when he encounters famed muralist and active Communist Diego Rivera, his beguiling artist wife Frida Kahlo and the exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, who spent his final years in Mexico. By becoming part of their extraordinary circle and acting as their cook and secretary, Shepherd inadvertently throws in his lot with art and revolution – a move which is to have devastating repercussions.

Kingsolver has admitted that she originally imagined the novel without Frida Kahlo but that “she moved into it.” Weaving the stories of real-life characters into a work of fiction is fraught with difficulty, but Kingsolver, with her meticulous research and keen eye for historical detail, succeeds magnificently.

The only stumbling block is that the larger than life Kahlo and Trotsky, with his love of animals and hopes for a world cleansed of evil, prove far more enthralling than the modest Shepherd. At one point he admits to Frida that he is “a mouse creeping around the shoes of giant people, trying not to get stepped on.”

After Trotsky’s murder in 1940, Shepherd begins a new life in North Carolina, where he puts his masterly talents of observation to good use by writing novels. But to his dismay, his colourful past returns to haunt him when the FBI decides to investigate him. As Shepherd’s lawyer dryly observes: “If a man is not a Communist, they’ll prove he is.”

Largely written in diary format, interspersed with newspaper cuttings, letters and notes by Shepherd’s devoted stenographer Violet Brown, this remarkable novel is a finely crafted story of identity and loyalty. And as the title implies (lacuna means “gap” or “missing piece”) all too often there is a yawning gulf between what is true and what people simply assume to be true.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber & Faber, £7.99.

Emma’s rating - ****

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