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The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Just listen!  Barbara Kingsolver has earned a world-wide reputation for her writing, but who knew she is a fantastic reader as well?  Her performance of her newest novel, The Lacuna, kept me looking for errands to run so that I could hop back in the car to hear more.  The 16 CDs brought the story to life in a way I doubt I would have appreciated in reading the words without her voice in my head.

 The book jacket blurb summarizes the plot:

"BK takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J.Edgar Hoover ... a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identity."

True enough, but doesn't get at the nuances of character development Kingsolver accomplishes in her extended portrait of protagonist Harrison Shepherd and the people impacting his life.

Harrison Shepherd is a writer, following from boyhood that compulsion common to many writers to chronicle their days. Year in and year out Shepherd fills notebooks comprising a detailed journal of his life.  How we come to read those journals and empathize with the writer and move with him from the "interesting times" he experiences in mid-1950s Asheville, North Carolina, back to his coming of age in Mexico is to acknowledge writer Kingsolver's extraordinary skill in structuring her narrative.  On paper,  the novel is 500 pages long, yet the tension as the story develops keeps the reader [or listener] hooked. As her protagonist says, more than once, "the most important part of the story is the piece of it you don't know" --- until the end!

Perhaps the mark of successful historical fiction is to have the reader come away saying, this is what it must have been like.  Just maybe it was this shocking, disturbing, to become personally enmeshed in the web of fear that settled over this country after World War II. Kingsolver describes Asheville shutting down for fear of infection during the polio epidemic; concern about Communist infiltration stifling freedom of expression; distortions, suspicion driving good people out of the community.

Listening to Kingsolver read her book was so effective that weeks after packing up the final CD for return to the library, I still hear the several distinct voices of her various characters: VB, the "archivist;" fiery Frida Kahlo; Sheperd's mother Salome; Arthur Gold, "the New York Jew in Dixie;" and Shepherd himself, his gentleness captured in her tone as well as in the words she puts in his mouth.