Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna
Harper Collins, 2008

Both Kingsolver and Waters are on my MRE lists. Some of their books are amongst my ATF (All Time Favourites) and even when I’m less fond of a theme or a set of characters in their works I still enjoy the books because they’re just well done. So, I like having one in reserve.

Actually, I “saved” The Poisonwood Bible for years and only just sank into it a couple of years ago (and how lucky I had, because look how much time passed between Prodigal Summer and The Lacuna).

Now I’ll have to think about going back to some earlier works and some short stories, if I have a hankering that only Barbara Kingsolver’s writing will satisfy.

One of the things that I especially appreciate about her work is that I have enjoyed her non-fiction and fiction, almost equally. (I say a-l-m-o-s-t out of a deeply-rooted preference for fiction: I can’t help it, it holds the bulk of my reading affections, and my growing interest in non-fiction must overcome a lifetime of having loved fiction more.)

Her essay collection High Tide in Tucson is one of my favourites, one of the books that first chipped at my prejudice against non-fiction, and I really enjoyed Small Wonder‘s offerings too, as well as her more-recent publication: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

In terms of recent novels, I would have thought that, between The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, faced only with plot descriptions, I’d have preferred The Lacuna more. I have a long interest in art history (not related in any way to talent: instead I am one of those people who would choose “being able to draw” when asked which absent talent I crave) and that setting intriguing (Kahlo, Rivera, Trotsky: how can this era NOT be interesting).

But, instead, I preferred The Poisonwood Bible. And, ironically, I don’t think this is necessarily any reflection of the book itself; just as I think I loved Kathryn Stockett’s The Help more, having listened to the audio version rather than simply having read the text, I am certain that I enjoyed The Lacuna less for having listened rather than having read. (The novel wasn’t yet available in paperback, so in theory the audio version was a good thing; it meant that I would fit it into my Orange Prize Project before the winner was announced.)

What I can recognize is that structurally and thematically, The Lacuna is a fine work. And, I suspect this talent (including her uncanny ability to link the thematic power of the work with so many aspects of the story’s crafting) would be even more prominent on the printed page, with the added ease of flipping-back-and-forth to recognize connections drawn between characters, sections, and images.

A ‘lacuna’ is an unfilled space, an interval, a gap: it’s a wonderful title for a book which considers gaps of all sorts (e.g. in the historical record, in the media, in a manuscript, in communication, cave openings, absent family members or lovers). Yes, indeed, the interconnections and complexities of this tale reveal a remarkable talent, even if this were the first of Barbara Kingsolver’s works I’d encountered.

Although perhaps another layer to the theme has been added on the audio level as well; I wonder if the long pauses left around each segment of the notebook in the audio version, are deliberately made more obvious so that you have time to imagine something “else”, something “other”, in those “gaps”. (If the use of space in the printed manuscript seems to support this theme, then I’d suspect these silences are intended to do the same, but that also could be my “reading” too much into things!)


For me, Barbara Kingsolver’s reading of her novel — her voice and delivery — completely and entirely distracted me from the story and the crafting therein.

I can’t express how baffled and disappointed I was by this, because I actually received a Book-on-Tape (oh, yes, cassettes!) of High Tide in Tucson some years ago as a gift, and I loved the rhythm of her reading in that collection, felt that it brought a new level of appreciation to hear her personally read essays inspired by and rooted in her backyard (if you can still say backyard, when it’s a desert).

And I really do like the idea of knowing an author’s voice because a lot of writers do read their work aloud to edit and revise, and I like to imagine the tones in which they’ve shaped their manuscript, so the mere idea of an author reading, rather than an actor performing does have an inherent appeal for me.

But Barbara Kingsolver’s reading of The Lacuna was something I endured rather than enjoyed.

I listened for more than five hours before I finally accepted the fact that I was not going to “get used to it”. (Just what is the audio equivalent of the 50-page rule, anyway?)

She enunciates in all the right places, and in a live performance perhaps her reading of this would work for me, but, recorded, that overly-perfect-articulation, the Spanish accent she adopts for Kahlo, the official-sounding voice for the excerpts from a printed record, the male voices she attempts in lower and gruffer tones, the baseline sing-song delivery of Harrison’s narration…they felt forced, unnatural. I cringed more often at the way that certain passages were delivered than from the emotional impacts of the scenes themselves.

I realize that this likely comes down to personal preference, but that’s just it: I would have much preferred that someone else read The Lacuna. And unfortunately, as much as I am striving to keep my evaluation of the novel itself separate from her audio presentation of it, my disappointment in her performance has inevitably impacted on my experience of the story and its crafting. I’ll have to plan to re-visit this sometime, when I can spend some quality time with it on the printed page.

On Mondays and Thursdays in May and June, I am Buried in Print:
13 bookchatted here, 1 still to cover for sure, 2 may be coming, 4 missed.