Monday, August 22, 2016

What's Missing is What Matters

Harrison Shepherd, American-born boy explorer, cook, plaster-mixer, typist, deliverer of paintings, and writer, is a creature of the author's imagination, but he inhabits a world of historical fact. After a childhood marked by his mother's mercurial sequential romances in Mexico, the fictional Shepherd becomes part of the household of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including their houseguest Leon Trotsky. This association, while hardly political in nature, proves extremely difficult when Shepherd returns to the U.S. during the Red Scare of the 1950s. There he faces the challenges of being a famous but publicity-shunning novelist, aided by his stalwart secretary/personal assistant, Violet Brown.

This is all pretty rarified air, but Kingsolver brings it off with aplomb. Somehow all these historical figures fail to distract from the details of Shepherd's life - perhaps because Kingsolver has so effectively drawn his character through multiple methods: diaries or daybooks kept by Shepherd himself, commentary by Violet Brown, plus newspaper articles, book reviews, letters sent and received, and congressional hearing transcripts. It's a lovely and effective mishmash.

Throughout the narrative Kingsolver has included a series of "lacunae" - absences that give the title a pleasing resonance as the novel progresses. A lacuna can be a gap in a narrative, or a cavity in the structure of a bone, or a space in a plant cell. In Shepherd's case, the lacuna is a gap in a rock wall that leads to a tunnel and an escape to another world, a missing notebook in his lifelong series of written observations of his world, a life lived beyond the reports in the newspapers, and what remains unspoken between lovers and friends in the silences between words.

As Shepherd himself says, "The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don't know." The gaps in Kingsolver's story speak volumes, in a most satisfactory way.  

(This book appeared on my TBR list as an Orange Prize winner; I selected it as the yellow book for the Color Coded Reading Challenge and also for the Mount TBR Challenge.)


And now, at the end of everything, this: standing waist-deep in the ocean wearing the diving goggle, with Leandro watching. A pack of village boys had come along too, their dark arms swinging, carrying the long knives they used for collecting oysters. White sand caked the sides of their feet like pale moccasins. They stopped to watch, all the swinging arms stopped, frozen in place, waiting. There was nothing left for him to do but take a breath and dive into that blue place.

And oh God there it was, the promise delivered, a world. Fishes mad with color, striped and dotted, golden bodies, blue heads. Societies of fish, a public, suspended in its watery world, poking pointed noses into coral.


  1. Hi JG,

    I am sorry I've not been commenting! I cannot get onto any blogs at work...we are seriously locked down there!!!!!

    I am delighted you're writing again, and will be back reading and commenting when I finally have access to real internet!

    LOVED this much. Loved it.

    1. Thank you, Oreneta! It's great to hear from you whenever possible. It doesn't surprise me that you liked this book: it's the kind of smart, adventurous, cultural story I'd expect to suit you.

  2. I loved this. As I said in my notes to self: "another fantastic novel by Kingsolver". Her stories are both eloquent and elegant. Like I said, I loved it!

    1. Absolutely! She is an excellent writer. Besides being eloquent and elegant, she puts a lot of variety and fun into the mix, so you get the best of both worlds.


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