Thursday, 12 August 2010

Life imitating art?

I've been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver for a long time. I love the way that she writes characters as people in which I can believe. Animal Dreams is one of my favourite books with its themes of social justice, people trying to make something of the world in which they live, families and the complications of love.

Each of my Kingsolver books in my bookcase has a story behind it. I recently bought Animal Dreams because I went into a bookstore to purchase The Lacuna shortly after it won the Orange Prize. I was expecting to see it front and centre of some display, but the shop didn't have it and would take some time to get it in. I'm not sure if it is an Ipswich thing or a "prize-winning novels don't have big readership so we're not going to waste our time" thing. They did have Animal Dreams and I decided to get my own copy so that I can reread it. The bookshop still got some money from me, but I'm not keen to return.

My copy of The Poisonwood Bible was left behind by a paying guest at the swanky hotel/restaurant at which I worked for a pittance in Minneapolis. As an impoverished grad student I was astonished that someone would leave behind a hardcover novel and not ask for its return. It sat in the lost and found cupboard until one day the cupboard was being tidied and the contents tossed. I leapt in to rescue it. At the rate I was paid, it was worth about 8 hours of wages and besides which, it was an author I loved and I was delighted to get a copy of it.

I'm on the lookout for any of her other books at second-hand stores. I've read all of her novels and a few of her non-fiction books. I've even paid overdue library fines for some of them. I'd prefer not to give my money to some big corporation. And I still find it hard to believe that I can actually buy new books without having to scrimp (too much) on the grocery bill.

Anyway, this was to be a post about The Lacuna and not Barbara Kingsolver in general. I finished reading it a few days ago and the story has been gently bobbing around in the back of my mind. Imagine my surprise when I logged on to ABC (ours not the American one) to read today's news headlines and saw that Osama Bin Laden's cook had been convicted for material support for terrorism and received a 14 year sentence from a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal. I immediately went to see what the New York Times had written about the case and found nothing which is odd in itself.

Of course I don't know the details of the case, but it is eerily similar to The Lacuna. The main character in the novel, Harrison Shepherd, child of a Washington bureaucrat and a Mexican free-spirit, spends time working for Trotsky who is in exile in Mexico. He is mainly the cook but moonlights as typist and friend. He moves as an adult to the Carolinas. Eventually the House Committee on Un-American Activities convicts him as a communist on the basis of his having been Trotsky's cook. He is forced to flee, and you'll have to read the book…

Shepherd of course is not a communist, but he probably did materially support Trotsky, if by that, you mean feed him. It makes you wonder about this case, if you weren't already somewhat sceptical of the "war on terror." When you start to look at the world in a particular way, many actions become justified. We all let our ideology colour our perceptions of course, but not all of us are in a position to do something about it.

Perhaps one of the reasons I like Kingsolver is that she expresses many of my concerns about the world wrapped up in a fascinating narrative. She's not preaching or hitting you over the head but simply illustrating the consequences of particular ways of looking at the world. That's what I want from my own storytelling.

No comments: