Tuesday, March 16, 2021

the last book I read

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

Oh, Mexico; it sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low. Well, Harrison Shepherd isn't here on holiday, it's just the latest in a series of short-term homes he's shared with his mother, Mexican by birth and currently shacked up with some slightly shady Mexican businessman in the coastal location of Isla Pixol.

Subsequently, as Mother's relationships come and go, Harrison moves around, spending time in both Mexico and the United States, and occasionally spending some time with his father, who lives in Washington DC. It's while attending a DC boarding school that Harrison starts to suspect that he may not be as other boys, in that he doesn't share their interest in other girls.

All the while Harrison has been obsessively keeping diaries, something he continues to do after he returns to Mexico, following a hasty and early exit from school. The diary covering this period has been conveniently destroyed, but we are invited to infer that there was some sort of homosexual scandal necessitating a swift departure. While looking for work in Mexico City Harrison is employed as a plaster-maker by celebrated muralist Diego Rivera and eventually becomes a permanent live-in member of his household staff, which also means falling into the orbit of Rivera's charismatic wife, Frida Kahlo

Harrison graduates from plaster-maker to cook, which means providing for the wide selection of guests the Riveras play host to, mainly people who share their radical socialist politics. The ante is upped considerably in 1937 when none other than Leon Trotsky and his entourage come to stay, and Harrison, in addition to his cooking duties, is put to work as Trotsky's secretary. Trotsky keeps up a furious schedule of work in exile, as well as finding the time to have an affair with Frida, the randy old goat. Harrison comes to think of him as a friend, which makes it all the more painful when Trotsky is assassinated in August 1940. All of the members of the household come under suspicion, and, fearing that the contents of his diaries may be of interest to the police, Frida arranges for Harrison to flee to the United States on the pretext of delivering a batch of her artworks to a museum.

Once back in the USA, Harrison has to find a new career, and after his war work is completed and his father dies he moves out of the city to Asheville, a small town in North Carolina, where he busies himself writing a historical novel, set in Mexico. Slightly unexpectedly this is a huge hit, as is its sequel, and Harrison unexpectedly becomes a celebrity. So far so terrific, but now we're into the late 1940s and full-blown COMMIE PANIC. No-one is safe from being interrogated about their past, nor from being obliged to sign forms proclaiming their ideological purity and their dedication to America, Mom, apple pie etc. So when the FBI come sniffing around Harrison, as a high-profile author and semi-celebrity, and start asking: so, is there anything in your past life that might be of interest, honesty obliges him to say: well, not really, unless you count that time I LITERALLY LIVED WITH TROTSKY.

The FBI's interest in Harrison does not go unnoticed in Asheville, and rumours soon start to circulate about the exact nature of Harrison's military discharge and the propriety (or otherwise) of his relationship with his faithful stenographer and assistant Violet Brown. When Harrison is summoned to give an account of himself in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he decides that this might be a good time to leave Asheville and return to Mexico, not that this is likely to put him beyond the FBI's reach if they did decide to pursue charges. Harrison has other ideas in mind, though, and after he and Mrs. Brown return to Isla Pixol Harrison disappears after going for a swim in the sea. He is presumed dead, and his will is discharged which leaves pretty much everything to Violet. It is only on the death of Frida Kahlo three years later that Violet receives a trunk of items, including many of Harrison's clothes and possessions from his 1930s residency in Mexico, but also a note from Frida which suggests that all may not be as it seems.

This is the third Barbara Kingsolver book I've read, and the second to appear on this list after The Poisonwood Bible nine years ago (Prodigal Summer is the other one). It's a book of two halves, really, the first mainly concerned with Harrison's time associating with the real-life characters who populate the Rivera residence(s). Frida Kahlo is the focus here, an extraordinarily magnetic character and seemingly irresistibly attractive to men despite being partially crippled and suffering from all manner of other health problems, many of them the legacy of a horrific bus accident when she was eighteen when she was impaled by a piece of wreckage. The second half of the book is mainly concerned with the absurdity and injustice of the anti-communist paranoia of the 1940s and 1950s, and the terrible and bitter irony of a country attempting to combat infiltration by a supposedly sinister and totalitarian regime by proscribing and criminalising the inner thoughts of its citizens. There is an odd parallel here with the previous book on this list, Johnny Got His Gun, in that its author Dalton Trumbo (who is briefly mentioned in this book) was blacklisted by the same committee. 

While this is generally very enjoyable, and by no means a slog despite its considerable length (670 pages), a couple of criticisms nonetheless: firstly it is a bit slow in places, and secondly Harrison Shepherd is a rather bloodless and passive character, content to be swept along by the stronger will of others (his mother, Frida, Trotsky, even Violet Brown) rather than initiating anything major himself. Partly this is a limitation of the novel's chosen structure: if you write a novel featuring real-life characters interwoven with your fictional ones, there is a limit to the extent to which the fictional characters can interact with and materially affect the lives of the real ones. If you were to have, say, Harrison Shepherd assassinating Trotsky, or intervening heroically to prevent his actual assassin Ramón Mercader from doing the deed, you're into the Inglourious Basterds realm of alternative history. I was put in mind of this passage (referring to principal protagonist Arthur Dent) from Douglas Adams' So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, not otherwise a book with many points of similarity to this one:

To be fair to Harrison, overt and publicly-apparent fucking of the sort that he would be interested in (i.e. with other men) would be as certain a route to public ostracism and possible legal proceedings in the 1940s as having suspected Communist tendencies.

There is an odd parallel with current events as well, in that some of the later section takes place during the US polio epidemic of 1948, and so there is a widespread quarantine in place which prevents people meeting face-to-face, especially in Asheville which is portrayed as a polio hotspot

The Lacuna won the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly various other things including the Orange Prize) in 2010; previous winners on this list are Bel Canto, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Home. Nonetheless if you were to ask me for a single Kingsolver recommendation I would still point you towards Prodigal Summer

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