I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Lacuna’ and admiring her skill as a historical writer.  I was very enthusiastic about her last book ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ but it lost it’s way towards the end.  This is a much more tightly drawn object but it’s taken me ages to get round to reading it. I bought it last year when it won the Orange Prize and it’s been sitting unopened on my shelves ever since.  Too many people said how fantastic it was and I have a slightly stupid, contrary streak that shies away from things that are over praised.

My reading group picked it so I was forced to open it up and I’m  glad I did.  It is the very best kind of historical writing.  The protagonist is a plaster mixer and chef for the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  They invite Trotsky to hide in Mexico and  he becomes Trotsky’s secretary.  After Trotsky’s murder he moves to America and struggles through the madnesses of the McCarthy era.

Kingsolver does three things very well; she domesticates history and makes famous historical characters feel homely and human in a convincing way.  Diego Rivera likes sweet pastries – which somehow once she shows it to you is very obvious.  Trotsky puts on an old jumper and mucks out the rabbit hutches which also feels absolutely right.  It’s not that Kingsolver demeans her characters, far from it – they are astoundingly brave people and she shows that.  Instead she puts blood into the myths and turns them back into people.

Despite all this domesticity her writing vibrates with poetry.  It’s a very light fingered poetry with choruses of recurring images and themes like the Lacuna (a kind of tunnel) of the title.  She manages to evoke the Americaness of America and the Mexicaness of Mexico without jingoism or great indigestible clouts of description and theory.

The last thing she does which is so very clever is to keep her readers constantly on the hop.  ’Lacuna’ is one of those books where you can’t see how it all works until you’ve read the very last word.  The narrative is broken up into notebooks, diaries, newspaper clippings and letters.  There are two narrators and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the two countries.  I’ve a prejudice against fractured narratives.  It’s a trick often used by writers to hide the fact they don’t have enough to say.  Not in the case of ‘Lacuna’, here it underlines the meanings and themes of the book, the connections that people can make between alien cultures, the impact of history on our lives, the crazy frenzy of newspapers when they pick up a story and the loneliness of celebrity.  It’s an admirable feat and I take my hat off to her.

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