TERRY GROSS, host:
Social activist and bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver's books include "The Bean Trees," "Pigs In Heaven," "The Poisonwood Bible" and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." Kingsolver's long-awaited new novel is called "The Lacuna."
Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: "The Lacuna" is Barbara Kingsolver's first new novel in nine years. Interest in it is unusually fierce for a work of literary fiction. Last month the news broke that Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target are engaged in a price war against booksellers over the hot late-fall/early-winter releases. All but one of the blockbuster books in question are works of genre fiction - suspense and horror stories by the likes of James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham.
"The Lacuna" is the only literary novel caught in the crosshairs of this sales skirmish. Kingsolver deserves kudos, if only because she seems to be singlehandedly keeping consumer zest alive for the literary novel. I wish I could say she also deserves kudos for writing a spectacular work of fiction, but to tell you the truth, it's just at best so-so. In fact, as a piece of historical fiction it has a lot in common with those conventional works of genre fiction that Amazon and the big box stores are hawking at those bargain prices.
A serious problem with "The Lacuna" is telegraphed in its striking title. 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. Our hero, Harrison Shepherd, is an accidental onlooker to history buffeted by other people's plans and passions. As he tells a friend late in the novel, what we end up calling history is a kind of knife slicing down through time. A few people are hard enough to bend its edge, but most people won't even stand close to the blade. I'm one of those. I don't bend anything.
The passive Harrison was born in the U.S. to a dim American father and a firecracker of a Mexican mother who's eternally on the prowl for a richer husband. In 1929, when Harrison is 12 years old, his mother snags a big Mexican landowner and she takes her son to live on her lover's estate. Adrift, Harrison spends his days swimming and learning how to cook from the kitchen staff.
When he runs into the artist Frida Kahlo at the local market, Harrison goes home with her and puts his dough-rolling skills to use by mixing plaster for Kahlo's husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. Eventually, Lev - Leon Trotsky - moves into the household and Harrison becomes his secretary as well as a witness to Trotsky's assassination by one of Stalin's agents. Later, as a young adult living back in the States, Harrison is targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his past association with revolutionaries.
Throughout all the artistic, political and erotic turmoil swirling through the Kahlo-Rivera household, Harrison has kept a diary which is published posthumously and composes the novel we're reading. Kingsolver's aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of history - the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key players. As Frida Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, greatness is very boring. The politically incorrect truth is, however, that ordinariness oftentimes is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point-of-view isn't all that illuminating.
Neither are the actual newspaper accounts of Trotsky's assassination and the Red Scare that Kingsolver includes here � accounts that break the, by now, not-so-startling news that official history contains lies. When masters of postmodern historical fiction like E.L. Doctorow or Don DeLillo or even, arguably, Toni Morrison shake up received narratives about the past, it's with the intention of making readers see something fresh, something larger, even mythic, in familiar events.
Kingsolver stops short of that ambition and instead swerves off in an old-fashioned sentimental direction, inviting readers to feel affection for the Zelig-like Harrison and a life not quite lived. I admit it, I'm mystified. To me, "The Lacuna" is an all-too-appropriate title for a novel that just feels altogether vacant.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.