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 flighty Mexican mother, he is raised south of the border as she vamps from one lover to the next. Adolescence brings him back stateside, to boarding school in Washington, DC. The Bonus Marchers riot, the Depression clouds the horizon—provoking stirrings of social conscience—and he finds first love with another boy. The '30s return him harshly to Mexico, and it's there he joins the household of Kahlo and Rivera as a plaster mixer and cook. (Kingsolver, the earth mother of American writers, dotes on food throughout, and some may want to use the novel as a cookbook.)
A not-so-secret journal keeper, Shepherd is overjoyed when Rivera makes him his secretary-typist. History continues its convulsions—Trotsky and his wife arrive and move in, entourage in tow. Shepherd's responsibilities expand, and so do his sympathies for the skittish revolutionaries he experiences as bumbling refugees forever just one slip-up away from Stalin's goons. "This household is like a pocketful of coins," Shepherd thinks, "that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on a counter to pay a price." Trotsky's wife irons her husband's pajamas, mindful that violent death might arrive at night, and then the pictures splashed across the front pages.
In Kingsolver's hot, heady, surreally gorgeous Mexico City and outlying landscapes, where haciendas beckon and sky-scraping Aztec ruins draw Shepherd into a fascination with the brutal, brilliant civilizations that will one day inform his best-selling books, intrigue thickens as sexual affairs multiply. Kahlo, whose ugly beauty, broken body, and jolting paintings have her perpetually glancing in mirrors—her outfits are marvels to behold—nevertheless finds her best inner reflection in the tall, dark-haired, taciturn gay American. Shepherd reciprocates with attentiveness that will meet with unexpected material rewards, as well as a comeuppance years later at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.
Kingsolver, at the top of her craft, builds pyramids of language and scenic highways through mountains of facts, while plotting a mostly tight course through the fictional premises that convey her writing's social conscience. In this book, pacifism, social justice, and free expression are the standards she shoulders. The research is prodigious, but her inner schoolmarm takes over only once in a while, seduced by teacherly diligence into excessive exposition.
Into practically every novel-writing life some historical fiction must fall. Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (1998)—huge and hugely successful—dropped an American missionary family into the Belgian Congo as it warred its way toward independence. The Lacuna moves history from background to foreground, the story populated by real people, so that suspense must be generated from known endings. It's not a question of whether or when something will happen, but how Kingsolver will spring it with imaginative pizzazz and depth, as an emotional booby trap, an attack on smugness.
She pulls it off, aided by the geographic peregrinations and contrasts that mark her work. At the same time, they enable her to bring her activist agenda to bear. In the latter half of The Lacuna, she relocates Shepherd to genteel Asheville, North Carolina, luxuriantly painting a waning Roosevelt era, war's outbreak and never-ending ramifications, and the birth of a McCarthyite nation. That place delivers to him his final soul mate, a spinster named Violet Brown who speaks with the mountain South's "peculiar antique grammar." An unlikely accomplice, she watches over his mission to reconstitute his life by writing a new kind of fiction that recasts history from the oppressed bottom up—and to no one's astonishment more than his own, he becomes a celebrity author. Violet's role in his destiny as a force for good and, unwittingly, a political pawn is another of the novel's stealthy bombshells. But most winning is her part in Shepherd's fate as a writer, which allows Kingsolver to return full-bore to the idea that The Lacuna is centrally a book about book making, authorship, and poetic license. It serves to underscore the implicit self-portrait Kingsolver composes in making Shepherd who and what he is—a writer inextricably connected to his life's story and beliefs. It takes a gifted novelist to plumb such connections. Kingsolver is still at it, a long way from running out.
Celia McGee writes for The New York Times and Town & Country.