The Lacuna

By Barbara Kingsolver

67,463 ratings - 3.78* vote

In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver 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. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities. Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional household In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego

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Book details

Hardcover, 508 pages
November 3rd 2009 by Harper
Original Title
The Lacuna
0060852577 (ISBN13: 9780060852573)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Will Byrnes

The Lacuna is really two books. One, the latter, is quite engaging, with a well-written historical perspective, emotional content, a bit of action. The other is an overlong back story, very light on involvement, written as if the author was watching the events and characters from behind a cloud. Considering that the stable of characters includes Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, it takes some effort to make them dull.

Barbara Kingsolver - image from

The Lacuna is Kingsolver’s attempt at a grand historical novel. She begins in 1929 in Mexico, introducing Harrison William Shepherd, son of an American father and a Mexican mother, as a young lad dragged along by mom to live with her boyfriend on an island off the Mexican coast. We follow him through adolescence, through his association with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky and a host of lesser characters. He connects briefly with his father in Washington DC and is enrolled in a private academy where latent interests come to the fore.

My favorite passage in the book occurs then, a thrilling scene of MacArthur and Patton attacking American WW I veterans who were demanding the payment that had been promised to them for their participation in World War I, the Bonus Army. Things do not become compelling again until many years later when Shepherd moves to North Carolina and begins his literary career. We first meet the wonderful, warm, Violet Brown there and it is her energy as much as Shepherd’s that carries us through to the end. That journey includes a chilling look at the McCarthy era, one that carries far too much resonance of today’s psycho-right. That works very well.

The methodology here is to present archivist notes from Violet Brown, excerpts from HWS’ journals and letters to and from him from other characters. The varying voices work well.

There is much beautiful writing here, rich imagery. And Kingsolver works her title, finding relevant lacunae images in lava tubes, blank spaces on a page and a part of Chichen Itza that is called the “mouth of the world,” among others. I was impressed by her comparison of the Bonus Army battle with the Spaniards’ attacks on New World locals several centuries prior.

Overall The Lacuna is a good book that could have been much better with significant editing. It makes one wonder if Kingsolver has enough juice to reject a demand for editing, a la Stephen King. If so, she should rethink that position. Even though there is worthwhile historical content within, and although it is very engaging in parts, The Lacuna is rather dull for far too much of its five-hundred-plus pages, which constitutes a rather glaring hole.

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Reviews of other Kingsolver books
-----Flight Behavior
-----The Poisonwood Bible


I hated this book. I couldn't even finish it. I started it and had so much trouble reading it that I put it down and didn't even want to pick it back up. Curious, I went to Goodreads to see what other people had said about it. Surprisingly, a lot of people loved it. A couple of people couldn't finish it, but the majority gave it good reviews. So I thought I'd give it another try. Ugh. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out its appeal!!

I just Googled it and found a NPR review that made me feel much better. It calls it Barbara Kingsolver's disappointing return, and uses the title to epitomize what's wrong with the book. As NPR says, "Lacuna refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character." Yes, that's it exactly.

This book is about Harrison Shepherd, but at the beginning, he's referred to as The boy, so I was immediately distanced from him. And then I was reading about him from his diaries. And all along, it just was not interesting. Apparently he's famous later on and meets famous people like Diego Riviera, Frida Kahlo and Lev Trotsky, but the book is just so friggin' BORING!!!!


The story is told as the collected journals of Harrison Shepherd, put together after his death by his secretary and friend Violet Brown. Beginning with his childhood, (just before WorldWar2), as his mexican mother leaves his american father and takes him with her back to mexico. Harrison writes his journals because he can't help but write, like other people cannot help breathing, he is destined to become an author one day.
Harrison's childhood is surreally beautiful, the problems of his chain-smoking, gold digging mother are distant. His journals are all in the 3rd person, nothing ever happens directly to Harrison. It's like looking at everything from underwater.

Harrison gets a job mixing plaster for the famous mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frieda Kahlo. which gradually turns into a job as a cook, and then also a secretary. Then the exiled Lev Trotsky arrives, taken into the houshold of the Riveras, and Harrison can't help but be a part of the revolution, even so he is still always on the outside, an observer, written in the 3rd person.

In the second half of the novel, back in America, Harrison finally begins to use the personal pronoun, I. No longer talking about himself in the 3rd person, he finally owns his own words, and talks directly about himself. Yet somehow he is grown distant, like letters from a child hood friend that you grew apart from. I find it harder to connect with Harrison now, which is ironic. But it leaves space to be covered over with by the political upheaval in America. Harrison's personal life seems to happen far in the background, while in front of us the FBI and the Un-American commitee are hunting down communist sympathisers. I feel bad now for every silly joking utterance of 'bloody commies', because I never meant it, and I never realised how real it once was. I feel like I've never paid attention in history class.

"Whenever I hear thing kind of thing," he said, "a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, 'how can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.' A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that Manner."

Theres a horribly real feeling of suffocation in this second half of the novel, neighbours turning against him, his readers turning against him, no matter how much they loved his first 2 books, now they believe any lies printed in the newspapers. The same happening to hundreds of US citizens, once they're labeled as communists, they're done for, no matter who they really are or what they really said. But it could easily be happening today. Replace the word 'communist' with the word 'terrorist', and this could be America today. It could be britain and any non mainstream political party - the British national party for instance, once the papers label you as a BNP supporter, you're demonised.

Violet Brown reminds us, when we're already well over 100 pages into the novel, that these are the private journals of a dead man who never wanted them published. And that we should stop reading if we want to respect his wishes. I almost stopped reading. It was hard to remember that the book is fiction. In fact that should be hard to remember, it should be, because in truth, in the end, it wasn't fiction. This is the most important thing about it. Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown may never have existed, but these events too place, these things happened to someone. These things still happen to other people now, under other names and guises. It's not fiction. And that is the scariest thing about it.

Julie Suzanne

I had the privilege of listening to Kingsolver read this aloud as well as reading the print...I love her. Her voice and her style of narration, her perfectly articulated words and sounds all captivated me instantly. Hearing V.B.'s voice as Kingsolver intended it is what made me want to just hug Violet Brown. The characters were so lovable (even though I'd never want to hang out with Harrison or Violet in real life, but Trotsky definitely).

I have heard people say that this book had a political agenda. I have to disagree. I believe that this novel, although centered around politics, is about humans, while politics never seem to be. This novel did not turn me into a socialist, a communist, an anti-communist, or a hater of capitalism, but it did make me want to embrace all kinds of people. It made me yearn to learn more about and to listen to people I don't know, and especially those that I think "I know about." Because I don't really. The best part about someone is that which you don't know. Thinking about that recurring message in the novel has impacted me. For reals.

This novel showed me about:

McCarthyism: how could we force people to value our government over theirs by silencing, condemning, and violating all of the personal freedoms that make our country so great?
The Bonus Army: How did I learn about this terrible event in high school (I had to have, right?) without remembering it? It's seared into my consciousness now...
Having your words used against you
Being a writer
Being a private person
Trotsky & Stalin
Stupid American slang from the 20's-50's.
Being gay when hardly anyone around you thinks that is okay
Censorship & other oppressive behavior
Artists, especially Frida & Diego
A lot of ancient Mexican history

My favorites (I'm being vague so as not to spoil the plot)

a) when a character protested a violating probe by invoking our personal rights guaranteed to Americans, and the agent responded with something to the effect of, "No American talks like that; that's how I know you're a communist." HA! I don't think this is true anymore, and I'm hoping that we'll be a little less inclined to McCarthyism-type witch hunting in the future.

b) The metaphorical images in the first chapter and what they came to symbolize

c) The strong women (Frida & VB)

d) Lev

e) The subtlety

f) The statement that a rule of the media is to fill the silence, keep talking, whether it's true or not. Sounds familiar.

g) Barbara Kingsolver's voices when she reads aloud.

h) The ending.

I have to thank my local library for pushing me to read this by selecting it for book club. I would have really missed out on some opportunity to grow as a person had I not dived into the lacuna.


Placed in context with Kingsolver's other books this is essentially worthless. She turns Freida Kahlo into the most magical pixie dream girl ever and gives us a main character so thoroughly desexed and generally grey that one sort of imagines him as a Ken doll, completely generic and non-threating in every possible way. And I KNOW that's sort of the point of the main character, but still, he is pretty much one of the least enjoyable protagonists I've ever read since all you do is spend time with his guilt and boring unhappiness.

Additionally, and you may not have known this, brace yourselves, but the House Un-American Activities Committee was BAD (NOOOooooooo I've blown your mind!!). Also bad: newspapers and media. Good? Trotsky and NOTHING ELSE. Especially Americans, unless you are a hillperson. I do admire how with the Violet Brown character Kingsolver has reconfigured the Noble Savage idea (and yet it still offends me!), maybe in these kinds of cases we could call it the Magical Hillbilly?

Oh, and just so I am not coming off as some kind of dumbass "America: Love it or Leave it" type I have no problem when American wrongdoings such as the internment/concentration camps for Japanese or the aforementioned Committee are rightfully brought to task, but it almost offends me when its done so lazily and without even the slightest attempt to think about why these things happened beyond "most Americans are sheep who like to buy stuff".

ETA (Man I just keep on thinking of things to dislike about this book): Her use of slang! Oh. My. GOD. Apparently someone issued Ms. Kingsolver an urban dictionary of the 30s-50s with the challenge of using every phrase in it, no matter the fact that when people do use slang they don't use all of it at once. About 60% of the characters sounded like parodies of people from their eras (see: The mother, Salome-I-don't-know-how-to-type-accents).


About a week before I started reading Lacuna, my friend asked me when I thought Barbara Kingsolver was going to write a gay character. Little did we know...

The fascinating part of Shepherd's homosexuality, of his entire character really, is how it is revealed. Slowly, carefully, the way we had to peel away the thinest possible onion skins to put on slides in my 6th grade science class. Most of this story is told through Shepherd's journal entries, entries in which the pronoun "I" is notably lacking. It's through his descriptions of everyone and everything around him that we come to know our protagonist. A delicate business, Babs, but one you do so well.

For those enamored with Kingsolver's lyrical prose, this latest (and greatest) work might be a bit of a stretch. Shepherd is a poet and though his journals often reflect that, the book is presented as a collection of "nonfiction" journal entries, newspaper articles, and archivist's notes. Kingsolver bats her character (and reader) from Frieda and Diego's Mexican ranch house, to Trotsky in hiding, to the McCarthy trials in America. This ambitious work covers art, politics, and social history in a comprehensive and thoroughly palatable way. Reading the fictive life of Shepherd and company set against the backdrop of actual history was like reading a textbook with the people and places come to life.

Of course, attention must be given to the relationship between Shepherd and his assistant Mrs. Brown. Sometimes the most perfect love affair is purely platonic. Or is it? Complicated and fascinating.

It's a brick of a book, so start lifting weights now. And sometimes it dragged. (I skimmed over some of the newspaper articles, I'll admit it.) But I fell in love with Shepherd and my heart was with his all the way through. I genuinely cared what happened to him and turning the page was never a question. I closed the book wishing there really was a writer named Harrison Shepherd. Brilliant, all around.


I don't give a book the 5 stars without much consideration. This author's beautiful language and the things she taught me make Lacuna very special to me.
I found myself in the bright and colorful world of Frida Kahlo's Mexico, and the gloomy sphere of the iron curtain and our country's disturbing consequences of McCarthyism. A real work of art that took me away from my cozy home.
It's not a quick read or one you can put down without considering all the circumstances of all the main characters. Hope and hopelessness, truth and misinformation are always present . Kingsolver requires you to think and search your heart and soul. I can't wait to discuss this book.


Yep, Barbara Kingsolver does it again, with a book that almost demands that you keep reading. This is the story of Harrison William Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother, and an American father. The father is indifferent to the boy, and his mother longs for romance and adventure, so she returns to Mexico with the boy.

The book is written as if it is a diary or journal of Harrison's life from his earliest memories. He details his life in Mexico, where through a series of events, he becomes the cook in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Later, Leo Trotsky comes to stay when he is thrown out of Stalinist Russia. Harrison's life becomes entwined with that of these three characters, which makes for fascinating reading.

As an adult, he eventually returns to America, where his books about Mexican history become best sellers. However, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities starts up, he is called to testify because they believe he is a member of the Communist Party. Having always been a private person, this causes him a great deal of anguish, and leads to his decision which ends the book.

I found this to be a really riveting read, both for the story, and because it is not always clear who is really telling the story. The description of life in the Kahlo-Rivera household, as well as the personality of Leo Trotsky and his wife made it especially interesting to me. I also learned more about the history of Mexico than I ever expected to!

I recommend this book if you don't mind stories that take a while to tell. Even small details turn out to be important, and at least in my opinion, I didn't want to finish reading the book and have the story end.

B the BookAddict

Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Mexico, Leo Trotsky, Committee on Unamerican Activities: The Lacuna is a wealth of information on these topics. But it's outstanding feature is it's narrator, Harrison Shepherd; Mexican/American, cook, sometime secretary, novelist and gay. Kingsolver's wonderful telling of his tale and those whose lives cross his path is insightful, humorous and full of pathos. I was, by turn, amused then saddened by his story; Harrison may have been a fictional character but many lives were shattered by the Committee on UnAmerican Activities and Edgar J Hoover and his band of merry men and those activities.

A HUGE thank you to Sally Howes for recommending this fine tome. This novel would be a good place for Kingsolver beginner to start and a great place for her fans to continue reading her magical novels. 4.5★


The only disappointing thing about this book was that I finished it, and have no new Kingsolver books to look forward to.

As always, her writing is exquisite. I found myself re-reading parts just to savor her use of language.

The Lacuna is a novel based on real events in history--the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the period in the 1930's when Trotsky was exiled in Mexico. I learned a lot while enjoying a good story, not really sure where it was heading--but oh! does it come together in the end in a way that took my breath away.