I had a personal stake in this one. When I hear the prevalent claims of false nostalgia that “modern writers can’t compete with the classics,” I often point to Barbara Kingsolver as an obvious illustration of literary prowess that far exceeds even the greatest excerpts of eloquence by the likes of Balzac, Voltaire, Cervantes, Joyce, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and (yawn) Shakespeare. I believe that The Poisonwood Bible is a masterpiece — and it is difficult for me to distinguish my real-life experiences in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2000 with the landscapes and charachters of Kingsolver’s books that I read while I lived there: The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and High Tide in Tucson. Many of her interests are my own. She began as a science writer, focused on ecology and evolutionary biology. She is an environmental advocate, though balances her arguments with a strong sympathy toward labor. In 2005, before it became mainstream, Kingsolver spent a year eating food produced as locally as possible, and then penned the account in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (of which I have only read excerpts).
In short, Kingsolver had a formidable influence during a formative year. When I heard that her most recent book — the first in more than nine years — was a fictional synthesis of Mexican and American history from 1929 to 1951, I felt once again that Kingsolver and I remained connected through that magical bond of imagination and observation that often exists between writer and reader.
This is not Kingsolver’s most impressive work, which is why I can (perhaps) understand Maureen Corrigan’s insistence that the novel is, in a word, boring. (Liesl Schillinger’s NYT review, on the other hand, calls it ‘breathtaking.’) Kingsolver is a writer who has always asked for a patient reader, he or she who is able to log out of Twitter and get lost in the detailed description of mother nature’s aesthetic and its constant reflection of our own flawed human nature. This is also very much a historical novel — rooted in methodical research, which began all the way back in 2002. It is her ability to bring well researched history alive that makes The Lacuna such a worthwhile read. San Ángel, Coyoacan, the Zócalo: they are no longer just places filled with people. They are also now haunted by the rewarding ghosts of history, reminders that today’s realizations and headlines are not so distant from those of yesteryear.
And, indeed, like most historical novelists, Kingsolver uses themes of the past to comment on today’s issues. (She actually does this in layers, as the protagonist is also a novelist who writes about the distant past to comment on the loss of civil liberties during the start of the Cold War.)
Bob Garfield remarked in this week’s On the Media in response to Pew Research Center’s Andrew Kohut’s claim that 39% of Americans are in favor of book banning:
I’ve noticed a kind of cognitive dissonance – I think that would be the nicest way I could phrase it – between our notion of going to war to protect our freedoms, a bit of rhetoric that is often mouthed, and Americans’ willingness to suspend those very freedoms on the home front as a matter of national security.
That statement is one of the central themes of the book, especially during its second half. A less rewarding theme is Kingsolver’s focus on fame and how artists are remembered in the public imagination. This ‘theme,’ however, plays out much more like a rant. From a worthwhile interview with The Guardian:
Yet emerging celebrities such as Frida Kahlo take control of their own image. “We’re all required to do that,” Kingsolver says. “I never wanted to be famous, and still don’t.” So, she chuckles, “the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most.” She created her own website just to compete with a plethora of fake ones, “as a defense to protect my family from misinformation. Wikipedia abhors a vacuum. If you don’t define yourself, it will get done for you in colorful ways.”
Such 20th century protect-my-identity paranoia (“Barbara Kingsolver | The Authorized Site: This is the only author website managed by the Office of Barbara Kingsolver”) makes me sigh. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty of Kingsolver’s writing. A highly recommend book to any and all, but especially residents of Mexico City.