The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Author: Tara Conklin
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Dual Narrative / New York City / 1850s / Virginia / Slavery / Artists / Reparations / Lawyer / Underground Railroad)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (2/12/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Loved -- got double teary at the end!
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: A Virginia slave in the 1850s and a New York lawyer in 2004 are tied together by art, a lawsuit on slavery, and one man.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do, actually -- very pretty, striking, kind of fits the mood of the story.
I'm reminded of...: Tracy Chevalier, Barbara Kingsolver
First line: Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like meaty historical fiction that tackles heavy themes without being heavy handed!
Why did I get this book?: I was super curious about the slavery, art, and reparations connection and how this novel would wrangle with these topics.
Review: Conklin is yet another lawyer-turned-novelist which makes me, once more, contemplate law school as a way to get my writer-ly career going. It doesn't hurt that this debut is enviously readable.
This is a complex novel that develops slowly but not ponderously, threaded with various plot lines that knit together neatly, and some deep, painful emotions handled without melodrama.
Opening in 1852, Virginia slave Josephine Bell decides to runaway from the plantation where she is kept, her sick mistress fading away like the collapsing farm where she lives. In 2004, Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer at a cut-throat corporate law firm, is assigned to work on a class action lawsuit for reparations for the descendants of slaves. Tasked with finding the perfect (photogenic) plaintiff to represent the case, the past and present meet when Lina learns of Josephine Bell through her artist father. A talented artist, Josephine's art work has been mis-attributed to her owner, and a controversial showing of the art provides Lina with her possible plaintiff.
The novel alternates view points -- mostly between Josephine and Lina, but after half the book, with the characters who interacted with Josephine -- and I didn't mind the shift until near the end, when we learn about Josephine through written records of those with her. I didn't like that 'barrier' that came up between me and her, so to speak, but I was grateful to learn what happened to her. Conklin's writing style is clear, balancing emotion and action, and she changes up the narrative style, not just with the alternating POVs but by sharing the 'source documents' Lina reads with the reader. We can have our own emotional responses separate of Lina's, and I appreciated that.
Most importantly, tackling the issue of reparations in a book like this (this isn't a John Grishom novel) and making it real without preachy is key - and Conklin nailed it. (I say this as someone who strongly believes we need to have a national conversation about reparations, a la South Africa's truth & reconciliation movement.) I think Conklin presents some shocking, upsetting, and emotionally raw themes and stories in a way that resonates without minimizing, and creates a rather provocative frame -- both from the reparations angle and the art authentication angle. It's daring and I love that Conklin went there.
In short, this is a winner of a historical novel. A fascinating angle for a Civil War-era historical novel, and with the subplot around art authentication, I think those who enjoyed The Art Forger might dig this one.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a giveaway for The House Girl to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/8.