by Barbara Kingsolver
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Princeton Architectural Press is about to release a book on Frida Kahlo that features a cache of purportedly rediscovered paintings, journals, and trinket-laced archival materials, which experts are denouncing as fake. The publication looks to do little for the reputation and life story of the complicated Mexican artist except to further cheapen them. But as a venture into the territory where fiction stalks fact, it handily illustrates the romanticized notions of history's celebrities that get cast back over time.
Barbara Kingsolver provides a foil to this tendency with The Lacuna, all the more remarkable, it's fair to say, given the position reserved for it on best-seller lists. The novel's own artifactualness is never in question, since, to highlight the deceptive ways we both perceive and receive history, Kingsolver has dreamed up a series of private journals, fictitious news accounts, invented book reviews, and other faux-archival stuff to make a riddle of her story. And though Kahlo is a character, as are Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Richard Nixon, the shyly sweet heart of the novel is the completely made-up Harrison William Shepherd. He is also its not always dependable narrator, because much of the truth Kingsolver wants to reveal about human nature caught in the sweaty grasp of historical events is uncovered by unpeeling the layers of a personality—Shepherd's—belonging to someone who writes fiction himself.
That personality originates, colorfully, in the 1920s. The expatriated son of a lackluster American father divorced from a self-destructively