Do novelists sometimes set the bar high for themselves, just to prove that they can rise to the challenge? I think Barbara Kingsolver may have done that with her latest novel The Lacuna. In addition to the normal difficulties involved in crafting a successful novel, she adds two more hurdles.
The first is that she sets her main character, Harrison William Shepherd, alongside historical figures, and larger than life ones at that. Shepherd, son of an American bureaucrat father and a tempestuous Mexican mother, winds up as a cook in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and eventually serves as a secretary to their house guest, exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Kingsolver does an excellent job of seamlessly weaving her fictional character into this real life story. The vivid personalities of the two artists seem authentic, and the description of their volatile relationship is both humorous and poignant.
The second hurdle is the form of the narrative, a long series of Shepherd's journals. Because he always feels himself to be an outsider, both because of his mixed heritage and his closeted homosexuality. Shepherd makes an excellent 'fly on the wall' observer of the complicated lives of the colorful Mexican household. But later in the book, when he returns to the United States and becomes a successful novelist, the passivity that made him a great diarist makes him not quite so interesting when he becomes the central actor in his journal. Luckily he gets an assist from his plucky secretary Violet Brown, who provides editorial notes, and by the inclusion of correspondence, newspaper clippings and even the transcript of a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, which detail how Shepherd's Mexican past and the populist slant in his novels, even though they are set in the time of the Aztecs, make him an easy target in the Red Scare era.
There were times late in the book where I was a little too aware that Kingsolver was preaching, stacking every card in the deck against Shepherd in order to make her political point. But nonetheless I ended up with great admiration for this book, a rich, complicated, vivid story told with amazing skill.