Story last updated at 11/25/2009 - 12:04 pm
"The Lacuna" (Harper Collins, 464 pages, $26.99) by Barbara Kingsolver
With her love for sprawling, complicated plots and colorful detail, no wonder it took Barbara Kingsolver 10 years to write her latest novel.
Kingsolver has followed up her 1998 novel "The Poisonwood Bible" - a brilliant look at the effect of colonialism on the Congo and the Congo on the wife and daughters of an American missionary - with another fascinating slice of history.
"The Lacuna" goes from Harrison William Shepherd's lonely youth in Mexico through Leon Trotsky's exile and friendship with the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City, to the communist witch-hunts in 1950s America.
The novel's name is derived from a deep tunnel that Shepherd finds while diving in the ocean. It is a "Lacuna," he is told.
"At the base of that cliff, something lay under the water that can't be seen from a boat. A dark something, or really a dark nothing, a great deep hole in the rock."
Shepherd - son of a Mexican mother and American father, who is living with his mother and her Mexican lover in 1929 - makes the frightening dive through the Lucuna, risking his life to find what's hidden there. Throughout his life, he keeps diving deep and looking for hidden things.
Told through a series or journals kept by Shepherd from his youth, and notes by his archivist, the book - as was The Poisonwood Bible - is rich in language and images.
"You had better write all this in your notebooks," Shepherd's mother tells him in 1929. "The story of what happened to us in Mexico. So when nothing is left of us but bones, someone will know where we went."
When Shepherd gets a first look at the mural Rivera is painting that depicts the history of Mexico, he is overwhelmed.
"In the little offices, men stand in shirtsleeves recording marriages and tax accounts. Outside their doors on the hallway walls, Mexico bleeds and laughs, telling its whole story. The people in the paintings are larger than the men in the offices."
To savor the writing is one of the pleasures of "The Lacuna." Kingsolver spins out her tail with thoughts of friendship, nature, fear, love, even food.
Indeed, it's Shepherds' ability to cook that lands him in the middle of Kahlo, Rivera and Trotsky and later with the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But there is also a much fuller picture here. The history it covers is fascinating - from radical politics in Mexico, to poor people in Washington, to the search for communists in the United States.
If there is a failing in the book, it is in the distance at which Shepherd remains throughout. He's interesting and lives through interesting events, but never as vibrant as the women Kingsolver populated in "The Poisonwood Bible."