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The LacunaA Reader's Guide to ... The Lacuna

In the first of a new series, Directory reviewer Sarah Akhtar takes an in-depth look at Barbara Kingsolver’s

Orange-winning title

 

My Meeting with Barbara

Even more welcome than a new novel from Barbara Kingsolver is the opportunity to hear her speak about it. She rarely leaves America but was in London for their Literature Festival so I& seized my chance, booked a ticket and then tried to read The Lacuna before July 17th.

 

At the Purcell Room at The Southbank Centre the spellbound audience learned a great deal about Kingsolver both as a writer and a person. The study where she writes only gets cleaned at the end of a novel so during the writing of The Lacuna the piles of research material (and dust) accumulated over seven years but it has

now been completely cleared ready for the next work in progress. Each of her novels begins with a chosen theme and she will then think of a situation and a set of characters in order to illustrate this theme. In the case of The Lacuna it is the accusation of un-Americanism that she chooses to set in the last century in Mexico and the US culminating in the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s under McCarthy. (Interestingly, during her talk she did not mention the events f 2001 when she herself was accused of being ‘un-American’ after her essay And Our Flag Was Still There pointed the finger at what she considered misplaced patriotism.)

 

Asked if this was a ‘political’ novel she replied, ‘All good fiction is political in that it creates empathy,’ and went on to say that she thinks the purpose of the arts is to engage us in the wider world. She writes with honesty and clarity, never fearing that anyone will be looking over her shoulder and criticising, instead she

relishes risk-taking and new challenges.

 

The narrator of The Lacuna is a writer, so much of what he feels and thinks comes inevitably from his creator; the reader learns how it feels to become a celebrity with the fan mail and required public appearances. Writing is a private business so publishing a bestseller can be frightening not only for Harrison Shepherd but also for Barbara Kingsolver.

 

The working title for this book was Notes to a Future Historian and the eventual title only discovered in her ever-present thesaurus when she had already been working on the book for six years. Fortunately her publisher, unlike Shepherd’s, does not change her book titles. She explained that she saw a lacuna as a gap, something we do not know, but also a cave or dark hole that leads us to another place. As her story unfolds we discover the relevance of this image.

 

As a speaker she is amusing, open and self-effacing, she tells us her heroes are Hardy and Dickens and that she would love to write a weekly pot-boiler as Dickens did. Always writing, she has kept a journal from childhood and her first novel was written in secret at night, fearful of discovery but with a compulsion to get the words down! Now she writes the first draft of her novels to the very end but will then rewrite numerous times in a process she described as pulling the ending back like a thread to the very beginning and – knowing the theme of The Lacuna – I can now appreciate the reference to the howlers in the first paragraph, it is all there you just need to know what to look for.

 

The book ends on an optimistic note and Kingsolver herself is in optimistic mood: she has the Orange prize and Obama is in The White House.

 

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The Creation and Welcome of The Lacuna

As an American, Barbara received criticism for her essay And Our Flag Was Still There written following the backlash of 9/11: http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0925-08.htm

 

Interviewed in The Guardian (12/6/09) she spoke of the ‘culture of fear’ felt in 2001 and said, ‘Fear can bring out the worst in people, I saw how close to the surface that defensiveness was, about any self-evaluation on a national scale’. This provoked in her an interest in the national identity of the United States,

the aversion to self-criticism, and why it might be that patriotism in America seems to require the ability to accept the country as perfect.

 

In June 2010 when Barbara Kingsolver was awarded the Orange Prize for The Lacuna, Daisy Goodwin, chair of the judges, described it as ‘a book of breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy’.

 

On its publication in November 2009 the first reviews were mixed. Criticisms included: a ‘slow-paced plot’ and ‘political tub thumping’ (Daily Telegraph), and ‘allowing history to dictate the characters rather than the other way around’ (The Observer) 

 

Yet at the same time most of the members of Jo(e) Public who posted reviews on Amazon were full of praise for this book.

 

This just goes to show what we at newbooks have always believed, that Jo(e) Public writes reviews that can be trusted.

 

Visit www.orange.co.uk to see Kingsolver in interview with Daisy Goodwin

 

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Brief biography of the author

Barbara Kingsolver was born in Maryland in 1955 and grew up in rural Kentucky where her father was a doctor. A lover of stories from a young age, she trained as an environmental biologist and did not publish her first novel until she was over 30. Influenced by such male political writers as Thoreau and Whitman, Kingsolver’s prose also has obvious links to the feminist writings of such as Lessing and Friedan She has published 12 books altogether but came to most people’s attention in 1998 with her much praised book, The Poisonwood Bible, in which she drew on her childhood memories of a year spent with her& parents in the Congo.

 

For a longer version of a retrospective on Barbara Kingsolver please refer to nb54.

 

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Barbara Kingsolver

Also by Barbara Kingsolver

 

Fiction

 Prodigal Summer (2000) [Featured Book nb5]

The Poisonwood Bible (1998)

Pigs in Heaven (1993)

Animal Dreams (1990)

Homeland and other stories (1989)

The Bean Trees (1988)

 

Essays

 High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (1995)

Small Wonder (2002)

 

Poetry

Another America (1992)

 

Non Fiction

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating (2007) [Featured Book nb45]

Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands (2002)

Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989)

 

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This is the first of our new series of A Reader’s Guide. If you have suggestions for future guides or would like to be involved please email guy@newbooksmag.com

Some discussion points on The Lacuna

 

Characters

The character of Harrison Shepherd – Barbara Kingsolver has said she tried to make him a “silent observer” and one way she does this is by avoiding the use of the first person until well into the book. Does she achieve this or does it rather result in his character not being a strong enough person to engage the reader?

 

She has also said “literature sucks you into another psyche” and through it the reader gets empathy for a “theoretical stranger”, does this work in the case of Harrison Shepherd?

 

How does the reader discover the character of Violet Brown? (The enigmatic VB of the first page)  Why is she essential to the story?

 

There is a theme of identity through the book, Harrison Shepherd is like a chameleon, changing and adapting in different situations. What makes us who we are? Does he eventually find his real identity?

 

Kingsolver uses some real life characters from history whose lives are well documented. Does this make the story of Harrison Shepherd more or less believable?

 

Does having these real characters detract from the story and make Harrison Shepherd less significant?

 

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Secrets and Clues

Lacuna means a hole, a gap, something that is not there and here it also means what we are not told, the other side of a story. There are inevitably gaps in the narrative as the reader is given a selective version of Harrison’s story by Violet Brown, what clues are we given to his character back in his childhood?

 

The secret of Harrison Shepherd’s sexuality – back in the mid 20thC it was common to keep such a thing secret yet he admits it to the Army, was this necessary for the development of the story?

 

The last secret is revealed by Violet Brown at the very end of the book. Bearing in mind that this is Violet writing, do you believe this or is it her wishful thinking?

 

Kingsolver herself has said that her narrator does what she wants and she is sure the ending is not ambiguous but optimistic. Does she make this clear?

 

Are there some facts that the reader has to work out for themselves?

 

Can the lacuna be seen as a metaphor? One absence is Harrison’s mother, can you find more?

 

Having read the book do you agree The Lacuna is an appropriate title and how is its meaning interpreted? 

 

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Context

Look at the newspaper articles in the book, some are real others are made up. Kingsolver has said she used the real articles to remind her reader that such a thing really did happen, as she is writing a work of fiction, does it help the story to use genuine newspaper cuttings?

 

Some reviewers have said the portrayal of Trotsky is inaccurate, if someone’s life is documented does the writer of fiction have a duty to keep to the facts?

Compare with other writers who have written fiction around history e.g Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

 

The time of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s is an unsettling place to revisit, have we now moved on from this climate of fear and suspicion or could you imagine similar accusations being made today? Is it so very different from the way Muslims are viewed in America today?

 

If you were in Harrison Shepherd’s position today how would you react?

 

Is it necessary to agree with Kingsolver’s political views to empathise with her characters?

 

Kingsolver chose a real town, Asheville, in which her protagonist would live, does weaving Shepherd’s story into a real town add to his story?

 

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Words

 

Starting with the title there is much play on words in this book, Harrison Shepherd makes his living from them but then during his trial his statements are twisted and he is not allowed to tell the truth. Does the reader feel his sense of frustration? Does the use of humour ease his situation?

 

The power of words to devastate is a strong theme, the way the media can twist words and the way that words are used to change Harrison Shepherd’s life, first to bring him success as a wordsmith and later to take all that away as he is vilified and accused of subversion. One reviewer called the novel a “spiky satire on press presumption”, do you agree?

 

Look at the construction of the book, the use of dairies, letters, newspaper articles, the different voices of Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown. Does this work or does it give a confusing picture?

 

Knowing the views of Barbara Kingsolver some have said she is on her authorial soapbox and that this detracts from her story. Do you find that to be the case or do you agree with her when she says that all good fiction is political as it creates empathy in the reader?

 

The word lacuna has many meanings, in a biological sense, in a legal sense, in a geological sense. Another word with double meanings is the howler of the opening paragraph. Here it is a monkey but this gives us a clue of what is to come as a howler is also slang for someone who makes accusations and whips up gossip. Are there other words used to mean more than one thing?

 

How much of what Harrison Shepherd is feeling as a successful writer can we imagine is also felt by Kingsolver?

 

Some reviewers have said this novel needs editing, which bits would you cut if you had that job?

 

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Other ideas for groups

There is much written about the lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky.

 

Further research would be possible by reading biographies as well as the history of the America of the 1940s and 1950s including what was happening in Asheville, North Carolina.

 

More lighthearted would be watching the DVD of Frida (2002) a film starring Salma Hayak, Alfred Molina and Geoffrey Rush.

 

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