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
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape