I first read a review of this book when it came out in paperback and as I scanned the array of players involved in the story – Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova – I immediately thought I must read this. However, upon discovering that half of the book was set in the political and artistic mayhem of Mexico in the late 1930’s while the other half was set in a sleepy American backwater I just couldn’t imagine how the author, Barbara Kingsolver, could successfully maintain such a transition. I therefore put it on the back burner which was pretty stupid considering it notched up the Orange prize and a stack of glowing reviews.
Well, I finally got round to reading The Lacuna – which translates as a gap, as something missing… like an extended silence in a piece of music- and I’m sure that this story will resonate with me for a long time to come. It starts with a young boy Harrison William Shepherd – Shepherd – on the Isla Pixol, off the east coast of Mexico. It’s a tropical island, far from anywhere and is home to his mother’s lover, a Mexican industrialist. He follows his mother on her journey from lover to lover in search of the life she believes she deserves and left to his own devices Shepherd retreats into his own world which he religiously documents in his journal.
In Mexico City he encounters now legendary artist Frida Kahlo and Shepherd enters a different world of revolutionary politics, artistic quests, fierce rivalries, intrigue and danger. As Diego Rivera’s assistant he is at the heart of struggle. Shepherd travels with the famed radical muralist to the USA where ironically Rivera is commissioned to do a mural in the Rockefeller Centre. He lives in the same household as Rivera and Kahlo who readily accepts their home being fortified in order to play host to exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova, who are being ruthlessly hunted by Stalin’s agents.
It’s an intense and compelling era in Mexican political and cultural history and Shepherd resides in its epicentre, right up to Trotsky’s assassination. It’s that cataclysmic event that propels Shepherd, who gets a job escorting precious artworks, back across the border to the US. He retreats into small town America where he quietly pens a series of best selling Aztec novels. However, the dark shadow of McCarthy-ism and anti-communist paranoia reached into every corner of America and but despite Shepherd being an observer, as opposed to an activist, his past is destined to catch up to him.
The Lacuna unfolds slowly over 688 pages and Barbara Kingsolver’s deftly crafted tale draws the reader deep into this man’s story. There’s a lot of history in this book but the humanity is what shines through. Vivid and memorable.
NO VIOLET BULAWAYO’S BOOKER NOMINATED ‘WE NEED NEW NAMES’ is another phenomenal book that divides itself between two continents. Initially we are dropped into ‘Paradise’, a fictional shanty town in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe where Darling and her friends are “rushing… running… running and laughing and laughing, and laughing…” and then we are then transported Detroit Michigan in the States where Darling is sent to live with her Aunt Fostalina and her Ghanaian Uncle Kojo aka “Vasco da Gama”.
‘We Need New names’ is a fierce but magical book and this Caine prize winning young author initiates the reader into the fearless world of a group of children who, armed their own scathing sense of humour and bold imaginations, create their own world within an adult world that is battered and disillusioned after the failure of Mugabe and Zanu PF to deliver “Change”. We encounter characters like Mother of Bones and Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, join the hunt for guavas in “Budapest” learn the rules of games like “Country” and “Find Bin Laden”.
However, the feisty young Darling escapes the harsh realities of Zimbabwe and spends her teenage years in “DestroyedMichygen” where she grapples with teen life, celebrity and hip hop culture, with American excess and the ever present psychological stress that plagues the displaced. Her experiences are laugh out loud funny but it’s a life laced with tragedy, desperation and longing.
Like Alain Mabanckou’s excellent ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty’, which is set in the Congo-Brazaville and seen through the eyes of an ingenuous 10 year old kid ‘We Need New Names’ dishes up a raw, dogma-free, brutally comic, no holds barred vision that’s both energising and unique.