The House Girl is Tara Conklin’s debut novel. I really enjoyed this story. In my experience the first is never the best novel so I can’t wait to see what comes next from this up and coming author. I sincerely hope that she keeps writing.
The narrative is separated into two different eras, similar to Sarah’s Key. The story begins in Lynnhurst Virginia in the year 1852 with Josephine, a house slave. It all starts when “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.” A perfect beginning sentence. I was sucked in. Why did Mister hit her? Would she make it when she runs?
In 1852 Josephine runs the house of a played out farm. She cooks, cleans, and cares for her invalid Missus Lu Anne Bell, who has taught her to read and write and allows her to paint. They are companions of a sort. When Missus paints she allows Josephine to also paint. Together they create numerous pieces of art. But life is hard and getting harder as Missus slips closer and closer to death.
The other story line takes place in New York City in 2004 and centers around Lina Sparrow, a recently graduated lawyer working to get ahead in a prestigious law firm. Because of her diligence she is asked to participate in a reparations case dealing with slavery. Her job is find a face for the case, a plaintiff that can represent all the other descendants of slaves in court.
Her search leads her to a controversy in the world of art, a place inhabited by her successful artist father. Critics are claiming that the Lu Anne Bell paintings are actually painted by her house slave Josephine. Lina thinks this will be perfect for her case and she begins the search for descendants of Josephine Bell.
I don’t want to give away the plot, but this is really a beautifully written book. I don’t remember any language, but there might have been a few words. I loved the style of the writing. I loved the story. I loved the personal growth.
I’d say that finding yourself is a theme of this book. Josephine needs to define herself as an independent person, free to create art and free from fear. Lina struggles with accepting that her memories and her past may not be what she remembers. She also has to cope with the present and how the search for the truth changes her.
While the book centers around slavery and racism I don’t think that the author spent an inordinate amount of time hashing it out. It’s present and it certainly colors the past, but it is the journey to freedom for both women that define the story. It’s a story about identity and how we as people construct that identity for ourselves. It’s quite a thought-provoking book.
I’d recommend this novel to anyone. It deals with some harsh themes and has some unpleasantness to it (It’s slavery after all!) but it is definitely worth reading.
- On My Bookshelf: The House Girl (missalaneyus.com)
- “The House Girl” by Tara Conklin (booksandbanternews.wordpress.com)