15 October 2009
What really went on in the household of Frida Kahlo and her painter husband, Diego Rivera? Their stormy relationship, full of extra-marital flings and break-ups, is probably as famous as their art, and the curiosity factor grows when they sheltered Leon Trotsky during the 1930s. Grounded in history, Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel imagines what happened behind closed doors, through the eyes of their housekeeper, Harrison Shepherd.
Harrison’s mother took him to Mexico after divorcing his American dad, to snag herself an oil-millionaire. A 13-year-old bookworm, Harrison befriends Frida, ‘an Azteca queen with ferocious eyes’, and becomes accidentally sucked into the revolution. Kingsolver’s epic story – spanning four decades of political upheavals in America and Mexico – is a vivid, colour-soaked depiction of those times. Like Harrison, torn between two nations and two parents, Kingsolver seems pulled between following her characters, and the historical events. It’s a dense, often too wide-stretching plot, but the characters – social climbers, lefties, do-gooders and crooks – make her rich, poetic writing come alive.