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Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

In the beginning were the howlers." So begins Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna. Initially it's hard to see the point of paraphrasing the opening words of the Gospel of John. The "howlers," after all, are just a bunch of monkeys who make a whole lot of fuss about nothing. They are easily riled and can turn a dim rumour into a deafening roar.

In the late 1920s, the monkeys live on an isolated island off the coast of Mexico, as do young Harrison Shepherd and his husband-hunting mother, who continually warns him that the howlers are out for blood. Harrison is a timid boy. He is either burying his head in books or he is hanging out in the kitchen with chef Leandro, his only friend in the mansion of his mother's rich oilman lover. The chef gives him a notebook, which he fills with his new recipes and old fears.

One day, encouraged by Leandro, he steels his courage and strikes out beyond the forest of howlers. He dives into the ocean and discovers a lacuna, an underwater cave, which leads to the other side of the island. But before he can explore the lacuna further, his mother pulls him away to Mexico City, in pursuit of another man.

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One afternoon, as his mother is dressing for a date, she describes the new prospective husband as "richer than God." Harrison teases back with: "Then he must have sunrise in his pockets and mercy in his shoes." She stops in her tracks and looks at him, and gasps, "You made that up, it's a poem." Then hastens to add: "You'd better write this in your scrapbook, the story of what happened to us in Mexico." And she gives him his first line, "In the beginning were the howlers." And this time, he heeds her, because she has seen him for what he is, a lover of words, a poet.

Harrison's scribblings become observations of the world around him where "everything changes, while you stand shivering in the corridor waiting to slip through one world into the next." One moment he is living on his island, the next he is dragged to Mexico City, the next he is sent home to his father in Washington, D.C. The only constant for him are his notebooks, where he can fill in the lacunae, the gaps, with his own versions of history, where he "can live by imagination alone."

You don't have to be larger than life to effect change; actual size will do

As it would turn out, Harrison's cooking lessons included the perfect recipe for empanadas, which also happens to be the perfect dry-to-wet ratio for mixing plaster, which, in turn, he happens to put to use when, crossing a square in Mexico City 10 years after his first cooking lesson, he comes upon the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera hollering for more plaster.

Harrison drifts from plastering for Rivera to cooking for his painter-wife, Frida Kahlo. Eventually, Kahlo discovers Harrison has been recording his experiences in his notebook, and it is decided that Harrison will become secretary to their famous house guest, Leon Trotsky.

Dwelling in the imposing shadows of his famous friends forces Harrison to realize that his mother's fear of the howlers went beyond distaste for pesky monkeys. "The howlers" is a metaphor for liars, gossips, nosey neighbours and, above all, "the yellow press ... who lie every day without hesitation." Like the monkeys, "one starts, soon the whole forest is bellowing, loud as thunder." The struggle for privacy hits home when, after admiring Trotsky's collection of fancy pyjamas, Harrison is told: "Most people don't have to think of dying in their pyjamas. And being photographed by the papers."

And it's true, as Harrison observes about himself, "I chose the writing profession so I can work in my pyjamas," not die in them. For him, writing is not a political act. He observes that Kahlo makes art that "rubs up against the soul," Rivera makes murals to speak on behalf of "the people," Trotsky writes to "liberate" others, but Harrison writes purely to entertain. Even so, Trotsky reminds him, weary citizens read to "liberate" themselves from worry, and he presents him a copy of John Dos Passos's USA .

The mention of Dos Passos is a nod to an author whose method of using newspaper clippings in his fiction obviously influenced Kingsolver. The "yellow press" was at its flamboyant height in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, full of purple prose, slanderous hyperbole and rampant editorializing. In The Lacuna, Kingsolver juxtaposes archival material with fictionalized articles. The effect is not felt with full force until the end of the novel, when the gap between fact and fiction, here and there, then and now, us and them, narrows considerably.

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Because of his passive nature, Harrison makes for a difficult hero. But the success of The Lacuna rests in the ways real acts of heroism come from unsuspecting corners. After Trotsky's assassination, Harrison flees to small-town North Carolina and begins writing historical fiction based in Mexico. Suspected of communist ties, he gets called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

When he and his loyal secretary, Violet Brown, become the object of a smear campaign and he is tempted to just write "amusing" happy escapist novels, it's Violet who keeps asking the important questions, among them, "How can it be un-American to paint a picture of sadness?"

And when his own publisher forces him to sign an affidavit denying any communist affiliations, his irascible lawyer, Artie Gold, echoes Violet. "You can sign this. Affidavit and all. ... But I'm going to tell you something about history in the making. ... You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark. ... No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what's broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it's broken you are automatically disqualified."

It's Violet and Artie, with so much to lose and nothing to gain, who are the true heroes of the novel, reminding us you don't have to be larger than life to effect change; actual size will do.

Finally, Harrison chooses to remain silent in a world where "the talkers are rising above the thinkers," and valiant Violet responds by removing Harrison from the fray, taking him back to his island. Back to the lacuna and the howlers. "In the beginning were the howlers" - the word-manipulators - but the lacuna prevails in the end.

Throughout the novel, Kingsolver is relentless in her depiction of the media's capacity for deliberately leaving gaps in the truth, thereby missing it entirely. Perhaps that's because she has been at the receiving end of a smear campaign herself. In her book of essays Small Wonders, she acknowledges her fans for standing by her when "a handful of ultraconservatives sliced part of a sentence" in her essay on the American flag, reversing its meaning completely. The Lacuna could be seen as her response to the "howlers" in her own life. Professional archivists also use the word "lacuna" to describe gaps in historical information. By filling in the lacunae with The Lacuna, she gets the last word.

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Madonna Hamel is a writer and broadcaster based in Toronto and Michigan. She can be contacted at

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