Monday, December 21, 2009

Review - Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Finishing Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna, her last and most daunting novel, leaves me wondering if Kingsolver intended to employ 'magic realism.' Was she kidnapped by the genre in her attempt to organize a complex tale in which 'a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe' as she 'matter-of-factly incorporates fantastic and mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction?' Was she seduced by the environment in which she did her Mexican research?

After I turned the last page, disquietude reigned. Kingsolver posed many unanswered questions. As an American who lived through the years covered by the narrative although too young to take part in the national debate, I lay in bed bombarded with questions about how I might have reacted had I been an adult at that time. Would I have taken issue with my government?

I am certain this was her intent – to render the reader confused about his/her own conscience in the midst of the politics of the time, of the politics of today.

I enjoyed the read in varying degrees. Parts of the book fascinate. Kingsolver's use of magic realism mingled 'the mundane with the fantastic.' Essentially Lacuna was 'realistic but was simultaneously possessed of a strange or dreamlike quality.'

It was precisely this dreamlike aspect that forced me into moments of reverie from which it was sometimes difficult to escape.

Kingsolver created a virginal protagonist. Some reviewers find him uninteresting; however, the drabness of Shepard is offset by the colour and chutzpah of the Mexican females who surround him. They provide a backdrop around which the protagonist interacts with what he perceives to be the more interesting aspects of life: food, revolution, and writing.

Last night I wandered around my thoughts and finally realized that the title The Lacuna, the gap, the tunnel, the part you don't know is not what you don't know about Harrison Shepard, the main figure in the book, but what you don't know about yourself.

Constantly, Kingsolver throws the reader back into reverie about whether each of us has a responsibility to formulate and act on a moral position. What would I have done?

This disquietude encouraged my enjoyment of Kingsolver's version of magical realism. She 'aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality.'

The supernatural is subtle in the art of Kingsolver. No blatant wings on the back of an old man, but a thousand year old Aztec statue, a lost journal, the magic of words written down, surrealist art all function in this quintessential novel of the Americas to point out the 'reality of revolution, and continual political upheaval in certain parts of the world. Specifically, South America is characterized by the endless struggle for a political ideal.'

I have eschewed an appreciation of that aspect of Latin American literature for many years. The only magical realism I have found satisfying is Gabriel Garcia Marquez' A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.

However, Kingsolver's circular repetition of events hovers around the protagonist, each time eliciting a stronger reaction. The story begins with a mysterious narrator who eventually is identified as the third mother figure for Shepard. Metaphorical magical howling in a strange rural setting sets the reader up for a journey into and around several labyrinths until the final circle closes within a hidden notebook describing waking in the midst of that howling. Each mother figure protects Shepard and encourages his talent.

My final commentary on the novel is that the book engaged me on my journey – a journey from very liberal (although appearing conservative) North Dakota to the far more labour oriented social scene in my current home, Brisbane, Australia. Perhaps it was my own circular travels across the Pacific that made me aware of Kingsolver's circular path through the 1930s and 40s in the Americas.

Thanks, Ms Kingsolver, you have been a grand travelling partner.