Faber & Faber £16.99 (528pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

The Lacuna, By Barbara Kingsolver

At the heart of Barbara Kingsolver's sweeping historical novel lies a reluctant writer, his recalcitrant stenographer and a Nabokovian dilemma: fragments of Harrison William Shepherd's furtively written memoir are stashed in a bank vault by his assistant, Violet Brown, and await posthumous publication despite his wish to have every last sheaf burned in his back garden.

Given the publication of Nabokov's unfinished 'new' novel this month - saved from the incinerator by his wife against his death-bed instructions - Kingsolver ruminates on the same philosophical conundrum on why a writer is compelled to write, if not to be read.

In the case of Shepherd, who is happy penning pulpy Aztec potboilers, his own life story is the one he believes in the least. Despite his diffidence, Violet thinks Shepherd's remarkable life - begun on the shores of post-revolutionary Mexico in 1929 and nearly ended in McCarthyist North Carolina of the 1950s - does not warrant self-censure. Yet her loyal endeavour to save his words from oblivion is her greatest transgression.

As the son of a spirited Mexican flapper and spineless American father, Shepherd lives peripatetically, zigzagging across borders after his mother flees her marriage in hope of a wealthier 'upgrade' in Mexico's Isla Pixol. He vacillates, forever an outsider, from an American military school, back again to Diego Rivera's New Mexico, in whose Communist household he begins his 'below stairs' ascent from cook to secretary, and procedes to become a bestselling American novelist in Asheville, before his patriotism is questioned in front of the 'House Committee on Un-American Activities'.

The dynamics of the most famous of Mexican households are enacted with vigour, from the marriage of the toad- faced muralist, Rivera, to his "Azteca queen" wife, Frida Kahlo, and the Russian exile, Leon Trotsky, endearingly nicknamed "Lev" who seeks temporary refuge in Rivera's home and whose ideals inspire Shepherd to transform himself from the amanuensis of great men to a man of letters himself. "Where does any man go to be free, whether he is rich or poor or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky? To Gogol!" says Trotsky, rousingly.

Kingsolver uses the opening image of a group of monkeys in Isla Pixol, dubbed 'Howlers' by locals, as a metaphor for political hysteria. "It starts with just one of them groaning: a forced, steady rhythm like a saw blade. That arouses others near him, nudging them into bawling along with this monstrous tune." We see such political choruses bellow through the book's history: from the voices of dissent against Trotsky which develop into thundering protests to the trickle of media reports accusing Shepherd of being a Communist, ending in life threatening crescendo.

Yet Kingsolver's marriage of the personal and political form an uncomfortable alliance. Having excelled at interweaving the greater story of the Belgian Congo with the intimate child subjectivities in her best-selling novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver ends up treading on the fringes of her characters' inner lives in this latest work. Perhaps the historical arc of the novel - stretching from the Bonus Marchers of 1932 to the aftermath of the Second World War, Mexican Communism and McCarthy's witch-hunts - is simply too wide, and realised at the expense of characterisations. The emotional fall-out from Trotsky's affair with Kahlo is barely addressed. Shepherd's homosexual cravings are only intermittanly alluded to after he is excused from Military Service as a "blue slip". There are times when Kingsolver offers a glimpse of his pent-up passions – his sexual longing for Trotsky's assistant, Van, after he discovers Van is to leave Mexico, is one such moment: "Van evanescent, servant of the advance, praise any word that could hold you. Praise your jacket that hangs on the peg...The Flemish lilting of your words, like the shift and drop of a typewriter carriage: a library with poppy fields inside." There are not enough passages carrying such poetic emotional disclosure. We are returned to the lessons of history, sometimes barely disguised, and the ways in which politics intersects individual destinies.

Shepherd, writer and protagonist, remains frustratingly illusive, described in fragments - diary entries, letters to and from Kahlo, media reports - which are like disembodied limbs pasted together in an attempt to create a full-bodied portrait. Perhaps it is the success of a novel that seeks to prove the impenetrability of its central subject that also serves as its failure.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015