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.”