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November 8, 2009

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'Lacuna' chock-full of resonating truths

A skinny young boy holds his breath and dives into the mouth of an underwater cave - a lacuna - swimming toward pale blue light as his lungs scream for oxygen.

He emerges, gasping, in a ghostly cenote, a sinkhole in the Mexican jungle fringed with broken coral, wedged with human bones: a place of sacrifice and buried remembrance. When the tide rushes out, it will take the boy with it, "dragging a coward explorer back from the secret place, sucking him out through the tunnel and spitting him into the open sea."

He'll paddle to shore and walk home, obsessed forever after by hidden passages that contain deeper meanings - meanings that only art may recapture. He'll acquire a notebook and fill it with stories and memories; when it's full, he'll begin another and then another.

But were he to consign these notebooks to the scrapheap, how would their mysteries be known? Who dares plunge into the wreckage of a discarded history, not knowing the risks of retrieval?

Barbara Kingsolver's breathtaking new novel, "Lacuna," follows this quiet, dreamy boy, Harrison William Shepherd, from 1929 to 1951. When we first meet him, he's 12 years old, living at a hacienda on Isla Pixol with his self-dramatizing mother, Salom?, both of them petrified by the howling monkeys in the trees above, which they believe to be carnivorous demons. "You had better write all this in your notebook," Salom? tells Shepherd, "so when nothing is left of us but bones, someone will know where we went."

A year earlier, Salom?, a slang-slinging Mexican beauty, had ditched her drab American husband (Shepherd's father) in Washington D.C., and chased an oilman back to his Mexican estate. On Isla Pixol, as Salom? sulks over her love life like a bobby-soxer, lonely Shepherd befriends the hacienda's cook, who turns the boy into a sous-chef while innocently cluing the kid into his sexuality (which bobby-soxers will never unleash). Shepherd's other close companions are the volumes in the hacienda library and his notebook, which he regards as "a prisoner's plan for escape." In the short term, though, it's Salom? who escapes Isla Pixol, dragging the boy with her, bolting for Mexico City in pursuit of an American she calls "Mr Produce the Cash" - and, after him, others.

His mother is not a puta, Shepherd reflects, with detached sympathy, even as he overhears her "bedroom jolly-ups" through thin walls. She's just a romantic woman who yearns for "an admirer" as she tries to put a roof over their heads.

Nonetheless, while still in his teen years the boy embarks upon a different path, toward a life not ruled by passion. "People contort themselves around the terror of being alone, making any compromise against that," he observes later on in his life. "It's a great freedom to give up on love and get on with everything else." But it's a freedom more easily imagined than lived.

Leaving his mother to her Mme Bovary messes, Shepherd parlays his domestic skills into a job mixing plaster for Diego Rivera's murals ("It's like making dough for pan dulce") and joins the Rivera household as cook and typist for Rivera, his artist wife, Frida Kahlo, and later for their guest, Leon Trotsky. In this incendiary, revolutionary household, Shepherd keeps mum and lets louder egos roar, just as he did on Isla Pixol.

"The Lacuna" can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices.

But the fuller value of Kingsolver's novel lies in its call to conscience and connection. She has mined Shepherd's richly imagined history to create a tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost past recognition.

Yet it's a tableau vivant whose story line resonates in the present day, albeit with different players. Through Shepherd's resurrected notebooks, Kingsolver gives voice to truths whose teller could express them only in silence.


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