I took The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, winner of this year's Orange Prize, away with me on holiday. I have enjoyed this writer's books before so was optimistic that this would be an engrossing read.
I must admit to being a bit disappointed at first; the swimming scenes at the start did not grip me and I struggled to keep reading, but once the central character Harrison Shepherd grew up and found his independence in Mexico, in the home of Diego Rivera the book really took off for me. The real historical background observing some of the life of artists Rivera and Frida Kahlo, followed by the arrival of Trotsky, opened up a colourful and eccentric world. Kingsolver's gift lies in not over-burdening us with fact, but in allowing us to know just enough of this real history to ground the story in reality, describing it through the eyes of an unusual and engaging fictional narrator.
This Mexican section of the book was satisfying in itself and at the end (roughly half way through the total length) I wondered how Kingsolver would keep my interest. I need not have worried. Now set in the USA, the narrative focused on the quiet writing life of the old-fashioned but very perceptive secretary, Violet Brown, who protects him from the outside world. Alongside this the relentless surveillance by the FBI seemed bizarre but full of suspense.
The novel is all about the mismatch between reality and public perception and the constant shifts in tone as it unfolds through letters, reports and diaries, as well as vividly illustrating this 'lacuna', keep testing your own reactions as a reader. It forced me to think how important it is to read newspapers critically and never to take reports of events at face value. What would I have thought of this writer if I had lived through this period of extreme nervousness and political anxiety?
Its a long time since I felt I didn't want a book to end, but I certainly felt it with this one. Kingsolver has been criticised for being too didactic and she certainly came in for criticism for comments she made after the events of 9/11. But for me, the quality of her writing and the sympathy she has for her characters override any sense of being lectured. Reading this has also made me want to see some of the work of both artsists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as well as read more factual history about Mexico at this time. It has opened my eyes. It is a perfect read for Pages Ago.
Image shows cover of American edition of The Lacuna which is more interesting than the UK cover, in my view
Jane was the co-ordinator of Time To Read, a partnership of people working in public libraries in NW England, to develop the audience for reading.
She retired in August 2015 and is now very busy doing other things.