Some discussion points on The Lacuna
The character of Harrison Shepherd – Barbara Kingsolver has
said she tried to make him a “silent observer” and one way she does this is by
avoiding the use of the first person until well into the book. Does she achieve
this or does it rather result in his character not being a strong enough person
to engage the reader?
She has also said “literature sucks you into another
psyche” and through it the reader gets empathy for a “theoretical stranger”,
does this work in the case of Harrison Shepherd?
How does the reader discover the character of Violet Brown?
(The enigmatic VB of the first page)
Why is she essential to the story?
There is a theme of identity through the book, Harrison
Shepherd is like a chameleon, changing and adapting in different situations.
What makes us who we are? Does he eventually find his real identity?
Kingsolver uses some real life characters from history
whose lives are well documented. Does this make the story of Harrison Shepherd
more or less believable?
Does having these real characters detract
from the story and make Harrison Shepherd less significant?
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Secrets and Clues
Lacuna means a hole, a gap, something that is not there and
here it also means what we are not told, the other side of a story. There are
inevitably gaps in the narrative as the reader is given a selective version of
Harrison’s story by Violet Brown, what clues are we given to his character back
in his childhood?
The secret of Harrison Shepherd’s sexuality – back in the
mid 20thC it was common to keep such a thing secret yet he admits it to the
Army, was this necessary for the development of the story?
The last secret is revealed by Violet Brown at the very end
of the book. Bearing in mind that this is Violet writing, do you believe this
or is it her wishful thinking?
Kingsolver herself has said that her narrator does what she
wants and she is sure the ending is not ambiguous but optimistic. Does she make
Are there some facts that the reader has to work out for
Can the lacuna be seen as a metaphor? One absence is
Harrison’s mother, can you find more?
Having read the book do you agree The Lacuna is
an appropriate title and how is its meaning interpreted?
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Look at the newspaper articles in the book, some are real
others are made up. Kingsolver has said she used the real articles to remind
her reader that such a thing really did happen, as she is writing a work of
fiction, does it help the story to use genuine newspaper cuttings?
Some reviewers have said the portrayal of Trotsky is
inaccurate, if someone’s life is documented does the writer of fiction have a
duty to keep to the facts?
Compare with other writers who have written fiction around
history e.g Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
The time of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s is an unsettling
place to revisit, have we now moved on from this climate of fear and
suspicion or could you imagine similar accusations being made today? Is it so very different from the way Muslims are viewed in
If you were in Harrison Shepherd’s position today how
would you react?
Is it necessary to agree with Kingsolver’s political
views to empathise with her characters?
Kingsolver chose a real town, Asheville, in
which her protagonist would live, does weaving Shepherd’s story into a real
town add to his story?
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Starting with the title there is much play on words in this book, Harrison Shepherd makes his living from them but then during his trial his statements are twisted and he is not allowed to tell the truth. Does the reader feel his sense of frustration? Does the use of humour ease his situation?
The power of words to devastate is a strong theme, the way the media can twist words and the way that words are used to change Harrison Shepherd’s life, first to bring him success as a wordsmith and later to take all that away as he is vilified and accused of subversion. One reviewer called the novel a “spiky satire on press presumption”, do you agree?
Look at the construction of the book, the use of dairies, letters, newspaper articles, the different voices of Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown. Does this work or does it give a confusing picture?
Knowing the views of Barbara Kingsolver some have said she is on her authorial soapbox and that this detracts from her story. Do you find that to be the case or do you agree with her when she says that all good fiction is political as it creates empathy in the reader?
The word lacuna has many meanings, in a biological sense, in a legal sense, in a geological sense. Another word with double meanings is the howler of the opening paragraph. Here it is a monkey but this gives us a clue of what is to come as a howler is also slang for someone who makes accusations and whips up gossip. Are there other words used to mean more than one thing?
How much of what Harrison Shepherd is feeling as a successful writer can we imagine is also felt by Kingsolver?
Some reviewers have said this novel needs editing, which bits would you cut if you had that job?
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Other ideas for groups
There is much written about the lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky.
Further research would be possible by reading biographies as well as the history of the America of the 1940s and 1950s including what was happening in Asheville, North Carolina.
More lighthearted would be watching the DVD of Frida (2002) a film starring Salma Hayak, Alfred Molina and Geoffrey Rush.
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