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Harrison Shepherd is a quiet and introspective boy with a passion for writing that he expresses by keeping a rather detailed diary. It is this diary that we are reading for most of Barbara Kingsolver’s extraordinary new novel. As the novel opens, Harrison, aged 13, has been taken back to Mexico by his Mexican mother, who has left his American father for what she hopes is a life of luxury with a Mexican oil magnate. Thus a pattern is set in Harrison’s life of journeys between the very different worlds of Mexico and east coast America, never really fitting in either.
Essentially the novel has two parts. The first is Harrison’s adolescence and young adulthood, culminating in the time he spends working for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and then as a secretary to Leon Trotsky until he is murdered. The second begins with his subsequent journey to the United States and revolves around the consequences of the post-war anti-communist witch hunts which destroyed so many careers and lives.
The author’s concern with social injustice shines throughout the book, from the consequences of the pitiful wage paid to the household servants by the Mexican oil magnate to the police violence against the impoverished first world war veterans marching in Washington in 1932 for the pensions they were promised but never paid. These experiences gradually politicise Harrison, though he remains a sympathiser with the broad left, rather than an active member of any organisation.
From the moment she enters the story properly, Harrison’s friendship with Frida Kahlo is a compellingly drawn feature of the story. She encourages him to write, and to ‘go sleep with some boys’ as he wrestles shyly with his desires; they share their respective episodes of depression, and each other’s secrets. As with her portrayal of Trotsky, Kingsolver pulls off convincing fictionalisations of real historical characters.
Mexican culture, its food, its festivals, its Mayan and Aztec heritage, is also richly described. Together with a well-paced plot, which ends with a very satisfying denouement, this makes for a deftly written story which is comparable in scope and quality to Kingsolver’s rightly celebrated The Poisonwood Bible.