I saved this book, which was sent to me by Harper Collins Canada to review here, for my stay in Mexico because I knew that it was set here. I love to experience a place through a book while I’m in that place. Don’t you? I hadn’t realised that the settings also include Washington, DC and North Carolina. No matter. What a joy this book has been; I’ve learned so much. Kingsolver fans might not enjoy it for its style, but this one did because as in all of her previous works of fiction, Kingsolver demonstrates her extraordinary story telling skills.
The book opens on a small island off the coast of Vera Cruz. On Isla Pixol the young Harrison Shepherd finds solace from howling monkies, his always-searching-for-the-next-rich-man mother, and lonliness in a lacuna that he finds while snorkeling in the warm ocean waters. The relationship between Harrison and his mother is the first of several important relationships in the book and it sets the stage for the content of the many diaries our hero keeps throughout his life. We get glimpses into important historical events and movements through the notebooks, which are presented to us by a Mrs. Violet Brown, who becomes Harrison’s secretary later in life.
Through the the journal entries, letters and newspaper articles, we the readers are privy to events that have been forgotten my many–or may be unknown–but which have eerie resonance with the contemporary terrorist milieu. While the dialogue sometimes seems preachy later in the book, Kingsolver weaves historical events with palpable love affairs and friendships. She reminds us how US WWI vets were treated upon their return to a country on the brink of financial breakdown and the pain caused by the Second Red Scare. Most interesting to me and important to the book, however, is the story of Trotsky’s stay with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera during the 1930s in Coyoacan, Mexico. With stunning description of the characters and the location, the author takes the reader to the intimate kitchens, studies and patios of three incredible historical figures that continue to intrigue contemporary readers and lovers of art and politics.
The passages I earmarked to share with you start on page 202 of the hardback edition, but it’s not available on the Browse Inside feature. This particular passage struck me as one of the reasons to like this book so much: it demonstrates how Kingsolver introduces an idea or an object that not only represents the importance of the event but also acts as a device to foreshadow. In this particular scene, Harrison and Frida have gone to the Teotihuacan archeological site. There, they’ve discussed Communism, love, art and writing. They’ve solidified their friendship, but the reader senses that the peaceful serenity of a picnic lunch with wine is soon to fade.
“The bones of the ancient city radiated heat, but the little river ran a cool thread through its belly. A lizard moved in the grass of the bank, running tnto the shade of a ledge, coming to rest near a stone that seemed rounded and glossy, even in shadow. That stone was smooth to the touch, and when turned over, reveladed itslef not as an ordinary pebble but a small, carved figurine. A little man made of jade or obsidian, something ancient, small enough to hide inside a closed hand. A remarkable artifact. It should be turned over to the professor. Obviously it would be wrong to take it from its place.
“Every detail of the little figure was perfect: his rounded belly with indented navel, his short legs and fierce face. A headdress that resembled a neat pile of biscuits. Eyes deeply indented under arched brows. And inside his rounded lips, a hole for a mouth, like a tunnel from another time, speaking. I am looking for the door to another world. I’ve waited thousands of years. Take me.”
During the period of WWII, Kingsolver has Harrison reflecting on the audacity of war: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a cloud, the world was lost…Your blood for mine. If not these, then those. War is the supreme mathematics problem. It strains our skulls, yet we work out the sums, believing we have pressed the most monstrous quantities into a balanced equation” (p 300). How astute.
The final bit I’d like to share appears on page 402. On a trip into the Yucatan countryside to a small village in 1947, Harrison and Mrs. Brown meet a woman named Maria. Maria is a protector of flowers that grow on the the tops of trees that are already rapidly being cut down for sale. “‘The important thing is beauty,’ she said once more, reaching a small brown hand toward the treetops. ‘Even death grants us beauty.'”
Beauty, indeed. If you’d like to escape to land that offers vibrant colours and customs, and if you’d like to better understand the pain and suffering that we continue to inflict upon one another, I’d recommend this book. You’ll learn about the human condition, and much, much more. You’ll get lost in the most enjoyable way. Besides, the ending is one of the best yet. Barbara Kingsolver has done it again.