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August 12 2012

Chavela Vargas obituary

Hard-drinking, pistol-packing, taboo-breaking singer of Mexican rancheras, revolutionary ballads and tangos

Gut-wrenching renditions of Mexican popular classics combined with a taboo-breaking personality and an iron liver ensured that Chavela Vargas, who has died aged 93, lived her own legend to the full. Vargas's raw, rasping voice and intimate arrangements stripped down well-known rancheras, boleros, revolutionary ballads and tangos to leave them as haunting laments, punctuated by waves of tenderness and bitter irony.

In the 1990s, the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, whom Vargas described as her "soulmate", included her music in his films and championed her work, thus ensuring that she will be remembered not only as a tequila-soaked cantina singer from Latin America, but also an international artist who could sell out the most formal venues. "Chavela Vargas turned abandon and desolation into a cathedral within which we all fit," Almodóvar wrote after her death. "She emerged reconciled with the errors she had made and ready to make them again."

Vargas was born in Costa Rica. By her own account, she hardly knew her parents and was brought up by relatives in the countryside, dreaming of the day she would escape to bigger things. Vargas left for Mexico as a teenager and, after a while singing on the streets, became a fixture of the effervescent artistic scene of the post-revolution years. Even in that context, she stood out. She not only slept with women, but also sang love songs about them, wore trousers, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a loaded pistol and credited her recovery from polio to shamans.

"Chavela carries with her an aura of grace, charm and a legend," the writer and journalist Paco Ignacio Taibo said in a 2009 television documentary about his friend's life, "but she is also an emotionally possessed earthquake."

Vargas was particularly close to the painter Frida Kahlo. "I admired her deeply," the singer said, "but my love was much bigger than my admiration." She lived for a couple of years with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, whom she described as "a bit amphibian in his ways".

Vargas was also inextricably associated with José Alfredo Jiménez, the singer and composer of many of the best known ranchera songs. The title of her 2002 autobiography Y Si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado (And If You Want to Know About My Past) comes from a line from a Jiménez song that continues "... it will be necessary to tell a lie".

Vargas and Jiménez would go on drinking binges together that lasted for days at a time and included helping each other serenade the different women they desired. But while Jiménez died young, Vargas continued to drink bars dry until she was in her 60s. She then stopped, abruptly. "Life offered me the most beautiful things that a human being can have," she said, "and I preferred to sink into alcohol."

Vargas suffered deeply from the homophobic atmosphere that enveloped Mexico and helped ensure she was not fully embraced by her adopted homeland until after Spain had elevated her to stardom. "I opened my arms and I said to the world: 'Come here, let's talk.' And the world and I talked every night and sometimes it rejected me," she said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2009. "It required tears of blood for me to get ahead."

In her final years, for all the talk of pain, she was also notably satisfied with her achievements. She continued to travel and perform, making the last of her 80 albums, La Luna Grande, in 2011 – a homage to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, with whose spirit she said she chatted regularly.

"I am proud that I do not owe anybody anything, and it is wonderful to feel free," she said in 2009. "Now I have the desire to lie down in death's lap, and I am sure that will be quite beautiful."

• Isabel "Chavela" Vargas Lizano, singer, born 17 April 1919; died 5 August 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 27 2011

The 10 best moustaches - in pictures

As men everywhere fuzz up for Movember, we celebrate some notable moustache wearers past and present

Sponsored post

October 06 2011

Mexican miracle paintings on show in London

Paintings, rarely seen outside their hometowns, are part of tradition of appealing for saintly intervention

They are A4-sized scenes of calamity, need and gratitude that have appeared in Mexican churches for hundreds of years. Now the paintings, rarely seen outside their home towns, let alone their mother country, will feature in an exhibition in the UK.

Miracles and Charms, which opens this week at the Wellcome Collection, in central London, brings together the tradition of offering small paintings in return for saintly intervention for luck and protection – with the more common one of wearing amulets and charms.

Infinitas Gracias, the first major display of Mexican miracle paintings in the world, shows individuals asking a saint for help or expressing thanks for being saved. The pleas range from the dramatic – life-saving surgery – to the more prosaic – a lost pair of donkeys and a slightly injured finger.

Antonia Bruce, the curator, said: "The votives are a lively and active expression of faith going back 400 years. Churches in Mexico were full of these paintings, they used to line the walls, right up to the ceilings. Frida Kahlo was particularly influenced by them. It is a tradition passed down through the generations. It's not just about the influence of the church, it is free to have a personality of its own. The messages are very direct and on their own terms."

The paintings, sometimes on canvas but more often on cheap tin roof tiles, are borrowed from museum collections in central Mexico and churches in the mining communities of Guanajuato and Real de Catorce, where the tradition is particularly strong.

An adjoining room shows how they are interpreted today in the form of wedding dresses, baby clothes, sports plaques, exam certificates and sketches of Jesus. One portrait is in a polystyrene tray, as used in fast-food restaurants. The second part of the exhibition is Charmed Life, featuring 400 amulets, ranging from coins, to shells, dead animals, and teeth taken from the collection amassed by folklorist Edward Lovett, who scoured London by night for curious objects, which he then sold on to Henry Wellcome.

Alongside them, the artist Felicity Powell, who also curated the show, has created new pieces and videos. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 24 2011

Peter Duggan's Artoons – David Hockney

When it comes to Robert Smithson's land art, David Hockney is no longer cool by the pool. As imagined by cartoonist Peter Duggan

June 29 2011

Head to head: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition – in pictures

Paintings by Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera are to be shown side by side in the UK for the first time. At Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from 9 July until 2 October

June 28 2011

Freedom for Frida

Paintings by Frida Kahlo and her husband are being shown side by side in the UK for the first time. But does this add to her greatness – or detract from it?

Fridamania last hit Britain in 2005, the year of Tate Modern's big retrospective. The nation was smitten, just as Frida Kahlo's husband Diego Rivera and all her other lovers had been during her lifetime. We were dripping in Frida earrings and Frida hairpieces; we were knee-deep in Frida dolls and Frida-inspired skirts. And, of course, there were all those extraordinary self-portraits to look at.

Six years on, Kahlo is back, one half of an exhibition that opens at Pallant House in Chichester next week, showing alongside Rivera's work; it is the first time the couple have been exhibited together in the UK.

In their lifetime, there was little debate over who was the greater artist. Rivera, who retold the turbulent narrative of Mexican history in murals that adorned public buildings throughout the capital city, was thought to outshine his wife in every way. (He was also an extraordinary self-publicist, who loved to entertain as he worked.)

Kahlo, 20 years his junior, was far less well-known. Her oeuvre could hardly have been more different. While Rivera looked outward, and back through history, Kahlo looked inward. She used her art to examine and confront what it meant to be an individual, to be a woman, and – in her case – a woman who had suffered a devastating catalogue of injuries as an adolescent (in a bus accident); these injuries left her in pain for the rest of her life. She was patronised by critics and the press. A fairly typical 1931 picture caption reads: "Mrs Diego Rivera can and does do very passable portraits."

But what a difference time makes, as the new exhibition will show: Kahlo's popularity has now entirely eclipsed Rivera's, a turn of events that would have stunned them both. In this, she has had one huge advantage: her works travel, while his finest pieces are murals, confined to Mexico. The Rivera works now on loan to Pallant House are very much his second 11.

Does it make sense to show the two artists together? American artist Judy Chicago – recently in the UK to promote her book, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face – thinks not. When we meet in London, she is outraged that Kahlo continues to be viewed through the prism of her husband; it means, she says, that her work is forever seen as reactive.

Kahlo featured in Chicago's best-known work, The Dinner Party (1974-79); a huge table laid for an elaborate feast, each place was set for a woman whose cultural contribution had not, in Chicago's view, been fully acknowledged – Elizabeth I, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O'Keeffe, among others. Kahlo did not have a place at the table but, Chicago explains, "other women are represented with floor tiles beneath the tables, and Kahlo is one of these".

At any rate, Kahlo hardly fits the "overlooked by history" tag. Her work has been the subject of sell-out exhibitions across the world; since the Tate show, there has been a blockbuster 100th birthday show in Mexico City, and another major retrospective in Berlin. Yes, says Chicago, but we still fail to look at her work in isolation, separate from Rivera's. "The big issue is that we need to open the narrative to allow women to be seen as central, rather than peripheral," she says. "Are we going to continue to see them in relation to giant males – as exceptions, in other words?"

Chicago admits that when she was first approached to write a book about Kahlo, she felt they had little in common ("I mean, I'd never have put up with Diego Rivera for a start"). But as she studied Kahlo's paintings, and her writing, "I started to see things I didn't think other people had seen – the way she represents animals, for example. There have been suggestions that Kahlo paints herself with animals when there's a separation issue with Rivera. But how do we know that? Why don't we look at what she is trying to say about the relationship between human beings and other species? This kind of thing rarely happens with male artists. Imagine an art historian saying Jackson Pollock threw paint at a canvas whenever he and his wife Lee Krasner had a fight."

But Kahlo, surely, invites a Rivera-centric interpretation. I once visited The Blue House, the home the artists shared in Mexico City, and remember feeling almost sickened by the plethora of sycophantic quotes on the walls and in other displays ("Diego was everything . . . my child, my lover, my universe").

Not fair, insists Chicago: if you read Kahlo's journals, you realise she gushed about other lovers, too. What's more, the reality for a woman in the 1920s was that marriage to a famous artist provided a key to a door. "The only vehicle for achievement at that time would be through a male artist. Women couldn't get proper training, and they weren't allowed to be part of an art movement. The only way a woman could access the art world was through a man."

Chicago has scant time for the Pallant House exhibition. "Kahlo's relationship with Rivera has been done to death. There are so many other rich avenues to explore – like her treatment of animals, or her use of dolls. There has been so little conversation about the fact, for example, that her work opens up new areas – illness, miscarriage, abortion, violence against women – that hadn't been explored in art before. By looking at her art in relation to Rivera, rather than for itself, she is kept in a place where she is a lot less challenging than she might be."

The 50-year narrative

Take childbirth, she says. In the usual interpretation, Kahlo was devastated by her inability to have children: the bus accident left her with severe pelvic injuries, and she had miscarriages as well as abortions. "But she was ambivalent about having children! That comes across in her journals," Chicago insists. "When people say she painted children because she longed for them, it's such a presumption. Having children distracts an artist from her art – Kahlo knew that, and I know it, too." (Chicago also has no children.)

Stefan van Raay, director of Pallant House, defends his decision to show the artists side by side. "It's very difficult, I'd say, to look at her work without reference to Rivera, because they were such close comrades, and they were united in certain ideas. In fact, it's Kahlo who puts Rivera into the picture – literally, in many cases. We have a painting by Kahlo which shows her with Rivera's face on her forehead, and we have a painting where she is cradling Rivera as though he was her baby. How do you begin to interpret those works unless you reference Rivera?"

The truth is that both tapped into vast narratives. But more than 50 years on from their deaths (she died in 1954, he in 1957), Rivera's view of Mexican history – revolutionary and all-encompassing though it seemed at the time – has been dwarfed by Kahlo's more universal subject matter. The world has moved on, but the matters of the heart that Kahlo explored – pain, betrayal, loneliness, family – remain the same.

• Frida Kahlo: Face to Face, by Judy Chicago with Frances Borzello is published by Prestel. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 25 2011

Goddess of small things: Frida Kahlo miniature could fetch $1m at auction

Mexican artist's 5cm by 4cm self-portrait, originally a gift for one of her lovers, put on sale at Sotheby's in New York

The familiar thick eyebrows joined at the bridge of the nose are there, as are the trademark haughty stare and the scraped-back hair.

The startling thing about the latest Frida Kahlo self-portrait to come up for auction is its size. The Mexican artist's Autorretrato en miniatura – self-portrait in miniature – measures just 5cm by 4.2cm.

Despite its lack of size, it is being sold at Sotheby's in New York on Wednesday night with an upper estimate of $1.2m (£740,000).

The locket-sized picture – thought to be the smallest painting Kahlo made – was originally a gift to one of her many lovers, the Catalan artist Jose Bartoli.

In it, she wears a red Tehuana blouse, silver earrings, an exotic necklace – and a characteristically defiant aspect. It is signed with the pseudonym Mara and dedicated, on the reverse, to "Bartoli con amor".

The two began an affair in the mid-1940s, which continued for years before Kahlo's death in 1954 at the age of 47.

Carmen Melián, head of Sotheby's Latin American art department, described the miniature as "one of the sexiest Kahlos" she had seen. "She is sending it to her lover, so she is presenting her best face forward," said Melián.

"Instead of looking straight on to you as she does in a lot of paintings, she looks to the side. In some of the other paintings with sideways glances, her eyes are kind of dead – but here they are coquettish."

In the miniature, Kahlo portrays herself as glamorous, unlike other better-known works which show her in tears or spilling blood, an allusion to lifelong suffering from a teenage accident which broke her spine and pelvis.

According to Sotheby's, the auction record for a Kahlo work is $5.6m (£3.5m) for Roots, an oil on metal sold at the auction house in May 2005.

In May last year, another small Kahlo work – Survivor – fetched $1.1m at Christie's against a pre-sale estimate of $100,000-$150,000. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 08 2011

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows in pictures

From Frida Kahlo in Dublin to Joan Miró in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

June 17 2010

Frida: raises an eyebrow | Reel History

There's a lot of painting by numbers in Julie Taymor's 2002 biopic of the radical Mexican Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek. But when the facts are this colourful, why take artistic licence?

Director: Julie Taymor

Entertainment grade: B

History grade: C

Frida Kahlo was one of Mexico's best-known 20th-century artists. Her painting reflected her tumultuous personal life, including her two high-profile marriages to fellow artist and communist Diego Rivera.


Young Frida (Salma Hayek) is on a bus to Coyoacán, fighting with her boyfriend about Marx and Hegel. The bus crashes into a tram. Frida is crushed and knocked unconscious, covered in blood and gold dust spraying out from a cone carried by another passenger. It's an arresting setpiece, and, though it looks like a heavy-handed piece of artistic licence, it's accurate. Frida did indeed get covered in gold dust during this crash, and was very nearly killed. Afterwards, recuperating in bed, she begins to paint. When she recovers, she takes her canvases to the famous Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), who was then beginning the splendid murals at Mexico City's National Palace.


Impressed, Diego takes Frida to a party. It's basically your standard night out in Mexico City during the 1920s: socialism, lesbianism, tequila shot competitions, and Diego going nuts and shooting a gramophone. The real Diego did once go nuts and shoot a gramophone, so that's fair enough. The film gets creative with the facts when it has Frida seduce Italian photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) in front of everyone, but it is true that she was bisexual. In real life, Modotti may have introduced Frida and Diego. Both of them told several different versions of the story of how they met.


Her flirtation with Modotti fizzles out, for Frida is smitten with Diego. It's not entirely clear why. He's way older than her, looks like a sack of potatoes with a hangover, demands constant feeding, and refuses point blank even to consider being faithful. This is accurate. Moreover, in real life, Diego was much less physically prepossessing than Alfred Molina. "Diego is an immense baby with an amiable face and a slightly sad glance," the real Frida wrote. "Seeing him nude, you immediately think of a boy frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish white like that of an aquatic animal." She couldn't keep her hands off him. It wasn't just her, either. Rocking the greenish-white frog baby look, Diego notched up affairs with scores of beautiful women, including the film stars María Félix and Paulette Goddard.


Diego materialises while Frida is tending her mother's grave, and asks her for a favour. "You've got a lot of nerve to come here asking me to do you favours," she growls. "No, it's not for me, it's for Trotsky," he pleads, earnestly. Sometimes, this clunky script is so bad it's unintentionally funny. "The Norwegians have expelled him, no other country will take him, and Stalin wants him dead!" OK, OK. The exiled Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) moves in with Frida, and together they climb the pyramids at Teotihuacán. Whether or not they did this, the sequence made the historian happy because Teotihuacán is one of the most remarkable pre-Columbian sites in the Americas.

The film is correct in saying that Frida and Trotsky had an affair. But it also suggests that Trotsky moved out of Frida's house specifically to avoid falling in love with her, and instead went to the less secure digs in which he would shortly meet with the pointy end of an ice pick. "You know what the consequences of this could be?" shouts Diego. This is wildly unfair, implying that Frida's libido was somehow to blame for Trotsky's murder. In real life, both she and Trotsky did pull back from the affair – but she left for Paris, and allowed him to stay in the house. He moved out while she was abroad, possibly owing to a disagreement with the volatile Diego.


The plodding, glumly literal screenplay holds this otherwise expressive biopic back, but it's still a colourful and entertaining watch. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 14 2010

Marika Rivera obituary

Actor and dancer abandoned by her father, Diego Rivera

The actor and dancer Marika Rivera, who has died aged 90, shared with her father, the muralist Diego Rivera, an imposing physique and determined character. However, it was to her mother, Marie Vorobieff Stebelska – better known as Marevna and generally regarded as the world's first female cubist painter – to whom she displayed unfailing loyalty after Rivera abandoned them both to return to his native Mexico when his first daughter was less than two years old.

Born in Paris, near her mother's studio in Montparnasse, Marika grew up in the heart of La Ruche – the artists' residence known as "the beehive". The narrow streets nearby buzzed with talent and she remembered meeting Picasso – "He loved my mother, and I heard he teased my father, saying I was his daughter" – Modigliani and the shy artist Chaim Soutine. Much later, Soutine would move in with Marevna and become a father figure to Marika, who soon earned a reputation for being as headstrong as her mother.

She married young, to the French set decorator Jean-Paul Brusset, a friend and collaborator of Jean Cocteau. After ballet training, she joined performers entertaining the French forces in North Africa in the early days of the second world war. Conditions were uncomfortable – Marika arrived by boat and had to wade ashore carrying her belongings – but early deprivations had toughened her spirit.

In Algiers, Marika, a dark-haired, statuesque beauty, won a following among the troops while Brusset painted and decorated where he could – notably the interior of the Voice of America radio station. A son, Jean, was born, but the marriage foundered and Marika led a peripatetic life in the south of France until she met Rodney Phillips, the English publisher of Polemic magazine.

They were married in 1949. Phillips owned the magnificent Athelhampton House, near Dorchester, and the family, including Marevna, Jean and their own son, David, went to live there, where they were photographed by Angus McBean. But the couple parted and Marika moved her mother and sons to London. She attended drama school before landing some memorable film cameo roles, most notably alongside Julie Christie in Darling (1965), in Girl On a Motorcycle (1968), in the 1971 version of Fiddler On the Roof and in Eat the Rich (1987), a cheeky caper produced by the Comic Strip team. She also tried her hand at a cabaret act, Marika's Cafe Theatre, at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in west London.

But her thoughts had turned increasingly to Mexico from where, after a silence lasting many years, her father had called her, begging her to come to him. "I asked if he wanted just me or my mother as well and when he said that he only wanted to see me, and me alone, I refused. How I regret that now."

In her dreams, however, she flew to his side to comfort him after the death of his third wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, whom Marika had disliked ever since an attempt to reach Rivera had been intercepted by Kahlo. "Every time I called him, she said he wasn't there," Marika said. "Sometimes I could hear him in the background. Once, she just hung up."

She thought often about returning to Mexico, although her one previous trip had been uncomfortable – she felt rejected by Rivera's two daughters by his second marriage, to Guadalupe Marín. Instead, she asked me to go on her behalf to the beautiful chapel at Chapingo, outside Mexico City, which is almost womb-like in its structure, and where Diego Rivera had, she claimed, painted the walls and ceiling with images inspired by Marika and Marevna. She told many stories, often with a great sense of humour – she loved to tease – and would drift off into impassioned French, especially when warning of the ways of men.

She was tireless in working for wider recognition for her mother, who died in 1984. When Marika left London to live in Dorset a few years ago, she and David needed to find a suitable place for what remained of Marevna's work in private hands. That she was able to attend the opening in 2006 of the gallery specially built at Athelhampton to house the collection gave her immense pleasure, as did the fact that the present owners of the house care for the works as she did.

Marika is survived by her two sons.

Marika Rivera Phillips, dancer and actor, born 13 November 1919; died 14 January 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 07 2009

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver | Book review

This long-awaited novel recalls a dangerous era for artists. By Maya Jaggi

Barbara Kingsolver's first novel in nine years takes a huge risk in venturing into copiously charted territory. It moves from the muralists and surrealists of the 1930s in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution to the McCarthyite witch-hunt of artists in the late 40s and 50s. Yet in crossing and recrossing the US-Mexican border, as novelists such as Carlos Fuentes have done before her, this novel reveals a singular ambition. It probes, with only partial success, the source of the vexed historical relationship between art and politics in the United States, as well as the gap between a life lived and a life reported.

The life in question is that of Harrison William Shepherd, variously dubbed Will, Harry and Insólito. Born in Virginia of an American "bean counter" and a Mexican flapper, he is raised in both countries, eventually becoming the celebrated author of American potboilers about the Aztecs. Shepherd's story opens engagingly with his boyhood in Isla Pixol, an island south of Veracruz, in a Mexico scented with "jasmine, dog piss, cilantro, lime". But the story comes to us in the elusive form of diaries and memoirs, letters and press cuttings. Locked for 50 years in a bank vault until all parties are dead, these fragments were saved by the novelist's stenographer, Violet Brown, from his despairing wish that they be burned.

Kingsolver meticulously inserts the fictional Shepherd into pivotal moments of recorded history, using both fictional and actual newspaper reports. As a youth in Mexico City, he sees a tiny woman of regal bearing, her hair "braided in a heavy crown", buying parrots in the street, and becomes a plaster-mixer and cook to her husband, Diego Rivera. Present as Frida Kahlo despairs of Rivera's infidelities and as Lev Trotsky seeks refuge with the revolutionary artist from Stalin's assassins, Shepherd becomes Kahlo's sometime spy and Trotsky's cook and secretary. As a naive and humble typist he plays a bit part in the rift between Trotsky and Rivera, and in Trotsky's murder. Back in the US, as the cold war hots up, these associations draw the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Shepherd's fate seems sealed by the view of a character in one of his novels that "Our leader is an empty sack . . ." – words that the novelist cannot truthfully deny are his own.

According to Violet, Shepherd was "averse to making himself known. Even when greatly misunderstood". The novel is at its best in the oblique revelation of this man, with his lacunae of privacy and passion. The young writer is an acute observer whose watchfulness derives partly from his itinerant upbringing – as a "double person made of two different boxes" – and his discreet sexuality. Guilt-ridden for failing to avert his boss's death, and disqualified from US military service for "sexual indifference to the female of the species" ("blue slip"), he spends the second world war couriering paintings to safety for the US state department.

In a spiky satire on press presumption, the novel points up the disparity between this man and the persona later ascribed to him as a treacherous "art smuggler, womaniser". A research trip to Mérida with his stenographer, an older woman, is written up in the papers as a "January-May romance". Even his sometime lover, Tom Cuddy, deserts him for his reported lack of patriotism. Yet while "lies are infinite in number and the truth so small and singular", the novel also witnesses the advent of celebrities who control and manipulate their own image. Kahlo, garbed as Mexican peasant or Aztec queen, says: "If I don't choose, they choose for me . . . The newspapers would wrap me in gauze and make me a martyred angel, or else a boring jealous wife."

Shepherd's interest as a novelist is in "how civilisations fall, and what leads up to that. How we're connected to everything in the past". His lawyer, Arthur Gold, sees anti-communist persecution, not least of artists, as putting poison on the lawn. "It kills your crabgrass all right, and then you have a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time. Maybe for ever." Kingsolver, who has spoken in a recent US interview of a post-9/11 backlash "against my identity as a political artist", offers a timely re-reminder – for those who need it – of an era when surrealist art could be condemned as "un-American", and foreigners deported for "working for Negro rights". Nor might an undead red spectre from the 50s be lost on an Obama administration mooting healthcare reform: "If Truman calls for any change, education improvements, or Social Security, a chorus shouts him down – welfare state, collectivism, conspiracy."

Yet the novel's later sections are marred by overstated irony, the dialogue too often staged between characters who agree, making for an authorial soapbox. More satisfying is an unexpectedly touching coda, in which the quietly besotted Violet keeps faith with the condemned man ("they'll go to the ends of the earth to haul back people they've declared unfit to be Americans," she notes), and a surprise lacuna holds out hope of escape. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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