The Lacuna is an intelligent and engaging piece of historical fiction, and deserves all the praise it has got from the mainstream. But scarcely acknowledged is how far Kingsolver goes in her critique of the hypocrisy of western political culture and her corresponding sympathy for revolutionaries.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (Faber and Faber 2009), 670pp.

It takes a few pages to get into the story and understand how the book is constructed: a series of diary entries, archivist’s notes, newspaper clippings, letters and congressional transcripts. But once it settles down you realise how clever it is, on so many levels. Set over two decades and spanning the Depression of the 1930s to the beginnings of McCarthyism in the 1940s, The Lacuna is both about the media creation of, and obsession with, celebrity, as well as the anti-communist crusade that began in the post-World War II era. Both issues have considerable resonance in the post 9/11 world. The novel’s underlying theme is freedom – free speech, freedom from discrimination and artistic freedom – and ultimately human liberation.

Barbara Kingsolver is probably best known for The Poisonwood Bible (1998), a story about imperialism and anti-colonialism that details the life of a missionary family living in 1960s Congo. The Lacuna, published just over ten years on, reflects a much sharper critique of the system in which we live, touching on racism, homophobia and the role of propaganda.

The book opens in late 1920s Mexico, on Isla Pixol, where the mother of protagonist Harrison Shepherd has followed her new lover. Born in the US but growing up in Mexico, Harrison spends much of his nomadic childhood on his own. It is not that he necessarily wants to be left by himself, but as an only child with an unstable family life, he often finds himself alone. He develops a close relationship with the cook Leandro, who works in the house where he lives, and who teaches him how to make pastry dough, among other delights. He also develops a sense of his privilege, of injustice in the world, and compassion.

Spending days on end swimming in the ocean, he also discovers the eponymous lacuna, an underwater cave with Aztec treasures, which he later reads about and then writes about in his novels. He begins with reading adventure novels and Mexican history, copying out the most important passages in his notebooks before having to return the books. The journals he keeps from then on make up the novel, secretly preserved, and meticulously transcribed years later by one Violet Brown.

Lacking a formal education until his teens, his mother sends him back to the US and puts him in a Washington prep school, the Potomac Academy. Here he first experiences the brutality of American life in flux, moving from Depression to World War, including being caught in the suppression of the ‘Bonus Army’ riots, where World War I veterans were fighting for promised government bonuses. He also experiences the first stirrings of his nascent homosexuality. But soon he returns to Mexico, feeling more at home in the house of his new employers, the celebrated artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, first as plaster mixer, then as cook.

He records the daily dramas that take place in the Rivera household, together with the draft of his first novel, an epic of the Aztec empire. His passion for Aztec history remains, particularly in how ordinary people shaped the lives of great leaders, and how resistance to foreign invaders was down not only to leaders but ordinary people. This helps him understand the revolutionary beliefs of his employers, including the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, for whom he becomes a scribe. Hunted by Stalin and his agents, Trotsky secures exile for himself and his wife in Mexico with the help of Diego, and Harrison is amazed at Trotsky’s unshakeable resolve for human liberation. He wonders, ‘Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?’ His admiration is clear and his loyalty to Trotsky until his death is unwavering.

Trotsky is portrayed as a kind, jovial intellectual with towering moral and political weight. ‘In 1917 I commanded an army of five million men. Now I command eleven hens. Not even a rooster at my service’, he jokes. But the media in Mexico paints Trotsky as the ‘Russian Traitor in Our Midst’ and describes his attempted assassination as his own creation. Trotsky relates to Harrison the betrayal of the revolution by Stalin and his bureaucracy after Lenin’s death, and how Stalin manoeuvred to create a dictatorship for himself and destroy any opposition to it. The defence of Trotsky against Stalin is consistent throughout the novel. Three years after arriving in Mexico he is murdered by one of Stalin’s agents, who had come into the circle of friends surrounding Trotsky by acting as a driver.

After Trotsky’s death Harrison has little choice but to leave. He drives and drives until he reaches the mountains in Asheville, North Carolina. Writing once again becomes an escape from another bout of the loneliness that is his life. There he meets his future stenographer Violet Brown, ‘sensible as pancake flour’, and who finally writes the book, in 1959, that we read today. They have an intense but formal relationship, held together by mutual respect.

He manages to write two best-sellers until he finds himself under scrutiny, first by the FBI and then by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Suddenly, amidst the growing hysteria over the threat of communism in the US at the time, his novels are recast as anti-American, his previous association with Trotsky and the Riveras becomes a crime and he is made to stand trial. ‘Mr. Shepherd, are these your words?’ they ask, referring to a character in his novel. ‘You are asked only to confirm or deny’. And on that basis the conclusion is drawn: Harrison becomes a threat to the nation.

It was true that he had a past, but it was not quite what the authorities thought. He was not a member of the Communist Party and he was not working to bring down the American government. Harrison didn’t see himself as having revolutionary ideas, but at the same time he believed that equality should reign, that people – communists included – shouldn’t be persecuted, and that Trotsky was right. The letters sent to him by his readers are also poignant, showing how much the public appreciated the subversion in his writing. The implication is that Trotsky was as much of an inspiration to Harrison as the struggles of resistance he read about in Mexican history, and both informed his ideas. And partly the message is that 1940s America has parallels with modern America, where ‘you’re either with us or against us’ and where ‘American values’ must be defended against the threat of terrorism. The irony is that these ‘threats to the nation’ are whipped up by a country which itself was founded on revolution.

In the end the choice presents itself: either fight or die. Harrison makes a decisive choice, but not without anguish. The Lacuna is a hopeful book, not only suggesting the possibility of a different world but also the power of ordinary people to change it.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU