Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna
Barbara Kingsolver
Faber, distributed by Penguin,
Rs 550, 507 pages

“I think our first responsibility, and also our first treasure as writers, is to represent ourselves,” Barbara Kingsolver said in an interview early in her career. She was speaking specifically of women’s writing; and even at that stage of her writing life, 15 years ago, she was instinctively suspicious of categories. “But when I'm writing I don't really think, ‘Who's going to read this?’ I don't feel my books are mainly for women. When students ask, "Is this a chick book?" I say, "Moby Dick is a whale book, but I don't think only whales should read it."

The Lacuna, her Orange-Prize winning novel, both defies and celebrates the stereotypes of “women’s writing”. One of its central characters is the painter Frida Kahlo, and as always, Kingsolver is brilliant at the art of getting inside the mind and emotional life of a complex, creative woman like Kahlo. The protagonist is a writer, Harrison Shepherd, whose childhood was split between Mexico and the US, giving him an insider-outsider identity. And Kingsolver’s concerns in The Lacuna are as always, sharply political, as she explores the McCarthy era and the communist witch-hunts, and the uses and pitfalls of revolutions in general. To summarise, this novel was not written exclusively for whales.

Over her life as a writer, Kingsolver’s personal beliefs and her political views have infused her books. The Poisonwood Bible was, until The Lacuna, called her “most ambitious” work, and it’s the novel that brought her a fame she has accepted with great unease. It’s probably one of the great works, not just about the history of the Congo in the 1960s, but about the cost of apathy and oblivion; closing your eyes to the world around you is not, in Kingsolver’s belief system, a valid way to live. One of her earliest novels, The Bean Tree, was a hard look at the economic and social changes that accompany motherhood; Prodigal Summer reflected Kingsolver’s growing concerns for the environment. In all of these novels, though, the human side of the story remained central—she loved and worked on her characters as much as she worked on conveying her political vision.

The Lacuna starts with fear and discovery: in Mexico, the young Harrison’s dreams are haunted by the howling of what he and his mother, Salome, think are saucer-eyed devils, though the real creatures are far more innocuous. Early on, the world of the sea will become one of the first of the alien worlds he will immerse himself in and disappear into, repeating this discovery in later years with his writing. The first section of the book is set in the time of the revolution; Harrison’s mother is a fickle charmer, whose partners are almost always on the wrong side of the Mexican Revolution. The story is told through his diaries, and here Kingsolver’s craft is flawless, as she allows the boy’s voice to grow into the man’s sure, more guarded, writer’s words.

Kahlo and Diego Riviera will walk through the narrative, rich, true-to-life presences—but for those who don’t know much about these two great painters, this part of the novel may seem opaque, almost inscrutable. Harrison shifts between Mexico, where he has roots and an identity, despite the floating world of their home life, and the US, where he is just another immigrant in the often harsh world of the gringos. And his story is not complete: “People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it’s called. The hole in the story, and this one truly missing still.”

In the second half of the novel, the lacuna will make itself felt. As Kingsolver analyses the workings of revolution, a stiffness enters her prose—we’re reading about people talking about revolution, in didactic or perfunctory ways, rather than about the ways in which Trotsky, Stalin and co impacted and sometimes devastated their lives. The US is seized by its own paranoia—the McCarthy era is upon Harrison, and his earlier association in Mexico with revolutionaries who spoke of communism and communist leaders with approval is dragged out, now that he is a famous writer.
This is the real lacuna, more than even the missing portions of his history. There is a gap between the writer’s complex, intimate world, his understanding of the quiet betrayals and high ideals of revolution—and the public role that he is called upon to play. “I grew up in Mexico, in the Revolution,” Shepherd says. “Being a Communist was just an ordinary household thing. About like fish on Fridays.”

If Kingsolver had been able to keep the interminable conversations shorter, instead of making them vehicles for well-meaning but polemical arguments, The Lacuna would have been much more than just an ambitious, and worthy, novel. It seems frivolous when so much is spread out on her generous table to ask for entertainment and engagement as well, but for all its virtues, the politics of The Lacuna eventually override its narrative.

For those who’ve loved Kingsolver’s work over the years, The Lacuna is worth your time, for its portrait of a writer, and two artists, as much as for the intensity of its debates. But be aware that as a novel, it never recovers from the missing hole in the story.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The BS column: The Orange Prize and the David Davidar case

(Published in the Business Standard, June 15, 2010)

In the fifteenth year of the Orange Prize, the debate over the world’s first literary prize exclusively for women has shifted. It used to be about men grumbling that women didn’t need a prize of their own; now the complaints sound suspiciously like the Orange is working so well that the men would also like a prize just to themselves.
Tough, since even today the Orange, by spotlighting five to six brilliant and often overlooked books by women each year, underlines how much publishing and literary prizes are still a man’s domain. Here are five great Orange winners who should be essential reading:

Carol Shields (Larry’s Party, 1998): Shields won her gong in the third year of the Orange Prize. She was well-known for The Stone Diaries, and the sweetly funny Larry’s Party wasn’t her best—but winning the Orange made her work accessible to a new generation of readers. Unless, her last novel, didn’t win the Orange—but it forms the best argument for the Prize, arguing that tiny, domestic themes are just as much the stuff of literature as larger, more “masculine” subjects.

Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004): Levy’s The Long Song, a slave’s-eye-view of came out this year to respectful reviews, but it’s Small Island that really captured our imaginations. Set in post-World War Two England, it’s a look at that time through the eyes of Caribbean migrants. Levy’s fourth book was her big breakthrough, both in terms of finding her audience, and finding her voice as a writer.

Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005): There has seldom been such a controversial novel in the history of any prize. Shriver’s tale of school shootings and an alienated, monstrously difficult child took on our last contemporary myth—the myth that maternal love is unconditional and natural. It is also perhaps the best novel ever to be written about the peculiarly 21st century dilemma of surviving a personal tragedy that’s playing out in the full public glare.

Marilynne Robinson, Home (2009): The companion novel to Home, Gilead, was a surprising omission from the 2004 Orange shortlist—but Home made Robinson an icon. Through the lives of the Boughton family—a preacher father, an alcoholic son—what Robinson brought to her writing was craft; but it was also wisdom. These remain among the best, and best-loved, novels of the 21st century.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2010): The Lacuna is Kingsolver’s most ambitious novel—her best would probably still be The Poisonwood Bible. Kingsolver’s fierce political views and her revisioning of history run through the novel. Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the much-lauded historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, was considered the frontrunner for the prize, and Wolf Hall remains the more entertaining, gripping book. But The Lacuna is a reminder that a really great writer often brings their conscience to their writing.

The Davidar case: David Davidar’s exit from Penguin Canada, after sexual harassment charges were filed against him by a colleague, is one of the biggest, and messiest, publishing stories of the year. Here’s a timeline of events:

Early 2004: Davidar, then CEO of Penguin India, leaves to join Penguin Canada as Publisher.
2007: Lisa Rundle is promoted to Rights and Contracts Director, Penguin Canada.
2009: Davidar named CEO of Penguin International and President of Penguin Canada.
October 2009, Frankfurt: According to Lisa Rundle’s statement of claims, Davidar comes to her hotel room and sexually assaults her after she rejects his advances. She does not file charges at this time.
May 2010: Lisa Rundle leaves her job; it is unclear whether she resigns or is asked to quit. (Update: Rundle now says she was fired.)
June 8, 2010: Penguin Canada announces that David Davidar will be leaving to pursue his writing career.
June 9, 2010: Lisa Rundle files a $100,000 sexual harassment charges against Davidar personally and a $423,000 wrongful termination claims against Penguin Canada.
June 11, 2010: Davidar issues a statement saying he is “utterly shocked” by the allegations, acknowledging that he was asked to quit, and stating his intention to fight the charges.

At present, those who’ve worked with Davidar and know him well are in shock—HarperCollins CEO Karthika VK echoes the Indian publishing industry view when she says that nothing in David’s personal or professional record indicates that he would be capable of sexual assault, and she finds the charges “very hard to believe”. Rundle’s trauma is also intense; as her lawyer stated, it takes a lot for a woman to file sexual harassment charges. It would be improper to speculate on the facts of the case at this point—Rundle’s charges are available, but Davidar’s defence is not at present. (I have posted my personal experience of working with Davidar elsewhere, on my blog.)

Whatever the verdict, this is a saddening, unpleasant story, and it will leave a residue on the lives of both protagonists. This column will offer a more detailed analysis when the case comes to court.
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