The House Girl by Tara Conklin

find in catalog“Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.”  From the first sentence of her debut novel, “The House Girl,” Seattle author Tara Conklin pulls us into the mind and world of a young slave girl on a once-prosperous Virginia tobacco farm in 1852.  With a deft touch for atmosphere and evocative detail, Conklin portrays the ambiguities and brutalities of slavery through the complex relationships between Josephine and her owners, Robert and LuAnne Bell, as well as her fellow slaves and those who assist her as part of the Underground Railroad.

Woven together with Josephine’s compelling story is that of Lina Sparrow, a contemporary young attorney and daughter of a famous artist. The stories interconnect when Lina is assigned to find a representative (and photogenic) plaintiff for a class-action lawsuit seeking reparation for descendants of American slaves.  She obsessively begins investigating when she discovers that art historians suspect the celebrated paintings of antebellum artist LuAnne Bell may actually have been the work of her house slave, Josephine.

Though Conklin is a former litigator herself, Lina’s challenges with work, home, and love in modern Manhattan seem a pale parallel to the rich and brutal complexities of Josephine’s life. Lina also suffers as the somewhat clumsy deus-ex-machina who unearths improbable historical documents whenever there’s a loose plot-string to connect.

Despite these slight missteps, Conklin’s fast paced narrative keep the reader glued to the page. I particularly enjoyed her lush and sensuous use of language, such as describing Josephine sleeping, “the summer nights so hot she’d lie spread-eagle, no two parts of her body touching, her own two legs like strangers in a bed” or Lina’s early childhood memories of her mother “that seemed cast in butter, soft and dreamy, lovely, rich.”

Ultimately, it’s Josephine’s story that truly enthralls. Conklin is masterful at tracing Josephine’s inner life and wisely gives her the first – and last – parts of the book.  It’s an interesting choice, as we know by then exactly where her life is headed; we still savor every word.  – Connie Bennett, Library Director

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