Barbara Kingsolver's new novel of Mexico and the Cold War is centered on “accidents of history”: how things turn out, and how easily they could have turned out otherwise. Both Kingsolver and her narrator Harrison Shepherd, who is a writer himself, are interested in history not for the marquee names but for the ordinary people swept up in the momentum of events. The Lacuna is made up of Harrison's notes and correspondence, beginning with his arrival at age 12 to the hacienda of a Mexican oil magnate and continuing through a youth spent as a cook in the employ of a radical painter couple in Mexico City. It's the 1930s, and the couple is, of course, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, soon to be joined in their contentious household by Trotsky and his retinue.
Harrison watches these luminaries from the safety of the kitchen while they work, fight, and try to keep the most famous political exile in the world safe from Stalinist assassins. Kingsolver is an excellent narrator of her own story, differentiating the voices with artful touches that never seem cartoonish. Harrison is quiet and sharp, with a retiring diction nearly drowned out by strident Frida. Lev Trotsky is serious but avuncular, taking the time, despite his heavy intellectual labors, to encourage the literary aspirations of the young cook.
But this tense little world-in-exile can't last. As Frida tells Harrison again and again, the most important thing about a person is the thing you don't know. The Cold War is starting. Spies do a lot of damage, and fear of spies does more. By the time Harrison returns to the United States, an agoraphobic bundle of nerves, McCarthy is rising. No former cook for a Communist can escape the notice of Hoover's FBI. The Lacuna is an examination of history, both what of happened and of how we reconstruct it. Too often, Harrison muses, we take the scraps that come down to us for the whole, “like looking at a skeleton and saying 'how quiet this man was, and how thin.'” Harrison Shepherd, as a writer and obsessive keeper of diaries, does his best to keep flesh on the bones of the past. Kingsolver shows how impossible this undertaking is, and how important it is to try. Rosalie Knecht