Amy Reads Books


The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver This was brilliant. The characters are all well-drawn. The fictional Harrison Shepherd is a wonderful observer, I finished this novel whilst a dramatisation of Charles Isherwood’s Goodbye Berlin was performed on Radio 4, and the line ‘I am a camera, observing’ seems also lined to Shepherd. He observes the goings-on in bustling Mexican towns, in the tranquillity of the sea and in the provincial Asheville, Carolina, where he lives after leaving Mexico. Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo are both ‘painted’ well, their fiery relationship and tempers, and Kahlo’s vibrancy and zest for life, despite her misfortunes is something that stays with both Shepherd and the reader-Harrison sees her in towns and in other women. Even the plain and older Violet Brown is drawn to be beyond just a secretary, and a woman on whom Shepherd relies, and who in return relies on Harrison. The only portrayal I had a little trouble with was that of Lev Trotsky. Having studied the Russian Revolution last year, it was difficult for me to see Trotsky being painted as a sympathetic, kindly man who doesn’t deserve his reputation. Yet, whilst it is true that Stalin tricked him and destroyed his family-and that is reprehensible-Trotsky did play a part in the deaths of numerous other Russians during the Civil War and in various uprisings in Russia.Yet the thing that upset me most about the novel was nothing to do with Kingsolver’s writing, but with one of the key events. Perhaps this is a spoiler warning for those who have not yet read the novel, but as it nears its conclusion the issue of McCarthyism comes flying at Shepherd, just as he’s began to garner a reputation as an author. The whole practice of McCarthyism, a systematic black-listing of anyone viewed as ‘un-American’ during the height of the Cold War-these ‘un-American’ activities could be anything from being foreign, having different political opinions or even supporting the emerging civil rights movement. The novel shows how the American government of the time capitalised on people’s fear, and how any wrong move made by Shepherd, or any suspected ‘Communist’, or be the seal on their fate. For instance, Shepherd citing his rights from the Constitution to an FBI agent leads him to respond that no ‘real American’ would speak like that. The way that the government could systematically destroy people’s lives seems inhuman; people were frequently asked to inform on their friends and family (the playwright Arthur Miller wrote plays such as The Crucible and A View from the Bridge in light of him being hounded to inform on his friends), and the way that they take some speech from a character in Shepherd’s novel and use it to show that he is apparently anti the government is extraordinary.Similarly, Kingsolver seems to comment on the power of the media, or ‘howlers’ as Harrison comes to call them. The media at first pour compliments and praise upon Shepherd as the author of two novels about Mexico, and applaud his (apparent) ability to discuss issues such as the development of the nuclear bomb within them. However, they swiftly turn, at first picking apart his private life-despite it being clear to the reader that Harrison is gay, and his relationships are shown within his diary, the papers gleefully link him to the seventeen years older widow Violet-and they then move onto his ‘suspicious’ privacy and shred him apart when he becomes accused of anti-American behaviour.The brilliance for me in Kingsolver’s novel is in her ability to combine these huge and often horrific historical and political happenings with well-written characters who the reader comes to admire and love.