The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver (Reviewed by Granny Savidge)

As many of you may or may not know I tried (really hard) and failed with The Orange Prize winning ‘The Lacuna’ by Barbara Kingsolver earlier in the year. I was actually quite narked at myself initially because I hate to give up on a book but the constant waves of loving this and then really not ground me down and so I stopped. Fortunate then that Granny Savidge Reads needed to read it for her book group so when I last went up I took it in tow to find a new home and she has kindly done a post on her thoughts, so without further ado I shall hand you over…

“I have a problem with what I call Faction i.e. serious books that include historical figures in the plot (though I loved Wolf Hall). To what extend are the facts correct, where does fact end and fiction begin?

Apparently Barbara Kingsolver took 7 years to write this book and during that time she researched everything she could that went into the writing of the novel. She read everything she could about Trotsky, Rivera and Kalo; she visited all the sites mentioned in the book, she even climbed the pyramid in Mexico as Harrison does in the book.  She studied the fashions of the time and she visited Ashville where most of the second half of the book takes place. I found unbelievable the account of the Bonus Army and the camps and the riots and the army firing on the innocent and setting fire to their homes so I rushed to the computer and there it was, even a picture of some of the buildings burning. Apparently all the dates she gives are accurate such as Rivera’s and Kahlo’s visits to the U.S. and Kahlo’s fling with Trotsky. However she does give a very sympathetic portrayal of Trotsky who from all I have read was just as ruthless and murderous as Stalin.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite modern books (and one I keep telling Simon to read) so I looked forward very much to reading this one but having read it find myself confused as to what to say about it. In some parts I think her prose was brilliant so why did I find myself so often bored with it and would I even have bothered to finish it were it not for this book group. The parts about food and cooking I found especially tedious.

This is a book in two parts, the first in Mexico sort of setting the scene for the second part, but I found the combining of the two unsatisfactory maybe as some reviewers have suggested it should have been two books. As I read all the details of life in Mexico I was aware that the writer was giving an account of her own observations rather like a journalist might rather than a writer of fiction and this was before I knew about the amount or research that had gone into the book. And by the way was anyone else annoyed by the use of so many Spanish words in the first part of the book. What are carpas, or pulque or guapo or Tejamo hats? I know that Spanish is widely spoken in the States but should we poor Anglo Saxons be left to guess or continually interrupt our reading to look up words?

There are a few fictional characters in the book, the feckless mother, the wonderful cook, Leandro, my favourite minor character, Archie the lawyer. The friend Tom, I couldn’t quite see the purpose of him other than to show that even your friends desert you when the state is after you. These people float in and out of the story leaving centre stage to Harrison who is there on every page though we really only know him through his diary and notebooks and to the wonderful Violet who of course is only there in the second half although she is really making possible our journey through the book.

Despite his omnipresence I found Harrison a shadowy figure, something missing, a lacuna maybe. Neglected as a child, becomes a servant/cook/secretary and then later when he realises his true vocation as a writer he is so persecuted by the state that he gives up the thing that has always given meaning to his life. Violet Brown I loved. Sensible, down to earth and utterly loyal and reliable, a marvellous force for stability in what, until meeting her, had been an unstable life. Despite the fact that I found Harrison’s character somewhat elusive the last few pages of the book almost reduced me to tears, after all we had followed this character from childhood to manhood through all the vicissitudes of his life and we see it end so tragically or did it? Can I just say that the final part of this book is wonderful writing so for anyone who may think of giving up I would say don’t.

So what was is this book really about? How despite the passage of thousands of years man never really changes neither better or worse than he ever was. How death can come suddenly out of a sunny sky whether it be for Trotsky, or Pearl Harbour or for those killed on 9/11. How easily the power of gossip and innuendo fuelled by the press can destroy a man and can lead to the erosion of those liberties that a nation has fought for, such as freedom of speech and freedom to hold a view opposed to the prevailing opinions. It also highlights the loneliness of a writer,  in Mexico when he was hard up Harrison was always surrounded by people, in the U.S. ,as a successful writer, he spends a solitary existence apart from the company of the faithful Violet.

I read this for our U3A book group and had to give a rather nerve wrecking presentation. The other members of the group had really enjoyed the book. The meetings take place in Ellen’s house, and as we talk, over home made cakes and tea; we can watch the local bird life flitting amongst the trees that surround the house in this special corner of England.

I haven’t mentioned the title yet, I thought maybe it referred to the gaps in his life or the missing notebook or some such. Barbara Kingsolver says ‘This story is about all the things you don’t know-the other side of the story-the piece of history that has been erased.’ What do you think? Who else has read this, tried to or wants to? Simon and I would love to know your thoughts.”


Filed under Barbara Kingsolver, Book Group, Faber & Faber, Granny Savidge Reads, Review

17 responses to “The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver (Reviewed by Granny Savidge)

  1. First of all, what a well written and thoughtful review. I avoided the Lacuna after reading quite a lot of reviews containing words like ‘chore’ and ‘couldn’t finish’ but finally picked up a pristine copy in the library (mainly because it was brand new and therefore devoid of brown stains and nose-pickings!) So glad I did!

    I loved the first part, in the main because of Kahlo, an artist I am very interested in. I agree the second part read slightly like a different book, but I never felt the urge to abandon it and the idea that reading it was in any way a ‘chore’ I found ridiculous

    Look forward to reading more of your guest spots, good job Granny Savidge

  2. teadevotee

    Hi Granny Savidge – you’ve totally hit the nail on the head with this review. I hate it when real people turn up in fiction, especially when they are done crudely (I recently read a horrible example called The Great Lover, about Rupert Brooke). In fact, what you’ve said about her years of research now makes the entire book a lot clearer to me – it’s like she had to justify that research by not leaving anything out. I felt this was less of a novel, and more of an encyclopedia.
    This is what I thought – but you’ve put it better!

  3. This review actually makes me consider picking it up and attempting it again. The Poisonwood Bible’s prose was far more immediately impressive and engrossing and, to be frank, didn’t have Trotsky in it. He’s one of those few pivotal historical figures that causes me to have a very bad knee-jerk reaction (I blame a professor who did a presentation in honor of the Kent State shootings and spoke in favor of Trotsky and his ideals for this one). Thank you for this thoughtful review. I truly might give it another go.

  4. You’ve done an excellent job at defining the controversial points in this book. Brilliant writing intermixed with tedium, the elusive main character, the “faction” aspect, the odd structure of how the story was told.

    I did not enjoy reading the book until the second half (or maybe third), but by the time I was done and saw the thing all wrapped up as a whole, I was sold. Each individual part was okay, but all together it was more impressive. I think that if I’d had stronger feelings about any of the factual characters, or if the book had not contained one of my most favorite paragraphs ever, I’d not have liked it as much as I did.

  5. I was not a huge fan of this one, although I love the idea of it. I would have found it more interesting to hear Kingsolver tell us how she researched the book. There were some good parts, but mostly it was quite dull. As someone quite familiar with the people and events in the novel, it also was quite obvious how it would turn out.

  6. To read your description on what this book is about, I’d read it in a heartbeat (especially after loving The Poisonwood Bible). But the overall reviews were just “meh”. Once I start to sense a pattern, I generally will not pick up a book. Our time is precious. Excellent review Granny.

  7. I haven’t read this yet and am really on the fence. Some people really like it, others really don’t. I think I will wait for awhile, maybe pick it up later.

  8. OMG. This book is one of my top 5 of ALL time. It was a great work, couldn’t put it down and cried when it was finished. Loved all aspects of it’s interwoven history lives and loves…
    Stop reading reviews everyone and just read it!

  9. Lynne Flanagan

    page 51 (in church)..even Mother had to bow her head a little as she crept past it, sins dripping from her shoes as we walked around the nave, leaving invisible puddles on the clean tiles. Perhaps God said her name was mud. He would have to yell that more than three times, for her to hear”..”
    Brilliant descriptions, clever, humorous, historically accurate, and a character of great charm. Who could ask for more?? And I’m only half way through..

  10. Anne Barraza

    Thank you for your excellent review. I have read about 150 pages of this book and am trying to force myself through the rest of it; feeling partly guilty and partly stupid for not grasping why it was deserving of the Orange. You seemed to have capture some of my “issues” – real persons showing up in works of fiction, curious use of the Spanish language(which in a few cases I think is not totally accurate)etc. Most vexing for me is never “meeting” Harrison – he is like the Wizard of Oz – communicating with his audience through a veiled curtain, yes, maybe he is the “lacuna.” I may write to you again, if, I manage to finish it.

  11. Interesting review. I was surprised to find so many people saying that they had problems with this book. I found it to be one of the best books I have read in years. I do enjoy historical novels such as Wolf Hall, so maybe that helps.
    You can read my thoughts on The Lacuna at

  12. SCCL Lady

    Thank goodness for book group–I doubt I’d have finished this one without the motivation of being prepared for group. Turns out, it was well worth the slog in the end. I really enjoyed it. I beg to differ on the “faction” question. Historical fiction is my favorite genre–sort of a lazy way to learn about history without it being a chore. And I’m always impressed when a book is so thoroughly researched as this was. (The exception would be Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed. That was surely a case of the writer inserting every speck of information he’d ever read as background into the very long, and rather boring story.)

  13. judithann

    I also loved this book as well as the Poisonwood Bible. I had no problems with any of it. I think you should just read a book for what it is. Why do we have to anyalze everything all the time.

  14. I can’t get enough of this book or the characters. I didn’t know the time period, artists or Trotsky before this read. Now I want to know more about all of them. The food sections were boring? Really? Not at all.

  15. Pingback: It’s Granny Savidge Reads 70th Today… |

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