Straddling The Canyon

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver; Harper Collins; $26; pp 507

– Susan Thomas

From the author of The Poisonwood Bible comes another ambitiously lengthy and provocative piece surrounding the life and times of Harrison Shepherd from the colourful 1930s in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s Mexico to the McCarthy hearings in the 1960s – The Lacuna.

A bilingual, biracial Harrison Shepherd is dragged to Isla Pixol by his philandering Mexican mother where he masters the language, history and cuisine. During his formative years, his father enrolls him in a Virgina military school, which ends in disaster and prompts his return to Mexico.

His culinary skills lead him to become a full-time chef in the house of revolutionary Mexican artists. He soon becomes acquainted with an exiled Russian politician, Lev Trotsky. On the run from Stalin’s Russia, Trotsky recruits Shepherd as his secretary for his bilingual proficiency. Thus ensues Shepherd’s thrust into the world of Communist ideals, intense political bickering and surreal art.

Many years later, a violent change of events moves him north to America, his father’s homeland, where he serves as a mover of art and national treasures for the State Department during World War II. He grows to become an enigmatic intellect full of witty, semi-sarcastic comebacks and tries his hand as an author of exotic Mexican adventures. His stenographer, Mrs Brown becomes his motherly confidante and close friend, second to the sassy Frida Kahlo. His writing career quickly soars and his invisibility abruptly ceases.

In fact, his fictional Aztec tales lead to serious misconceptions in the McCarthy administration and Shepherd comes under FBI investigation for his patriotism. His association with Communists in Mexico does not help the situation and eventually results in a severe loss of trust, friendships and most of all, his identity as a passionate writer.

Lacuna can be defined as a missing gap – an area in Isla Pixol where Shepherd enjoyed swimming as a young lad, but author Barbara Kingsolver expertly incorporates it as the metaphor for Shepherd’s broken home, constant movement between native lands and misunderstood loyalties.

Website Note: The Lacuna won this year’s Orange Prize For Fiction, one of the world’s biggest awards for women writers.

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Straddling The Canyon , 6.8 out of 10 based on 4 ratings

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 at 2:58 pm and is filed under Communism, Fiction, History, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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