Friday, January 24, 2014

Fiction Review: The House Girl

My neighborhood book group recently discussed The House Girl by Tara Conklin (one of my suggestions) and enjoyed this unique historical novel very much. What makes The House Girl unique is the way the author takes two separate stories – one modern and one historical – and gradually brings them together.

Chapters alternate between two subjects. Josephine is a 17-year old slave, a house girl, living in 1852 Virginia. Lina is a 24-year old first-year lawyer, living in Brooklyn in 2004 and working for a high-powered law firm in Manhattan. Lina’s firm, which normally deals in contract law, has taken on an unusual case dealing with slavery reparations that is being spearheaded by one of their largest corporate clients. One of Lina’s assignments in this class-action lawsuit is to find a lead plaintiff, someone whose ancestors were slaves, who can represent the class.

Lina’s father is a well-known artist, a painter, who tells her about a hot controversy in the art world. Some art historians suspect that the famous painter Lu Anne Bell, well known for her antebellum portraits of a plantation and the slaves who worked there, did not actually paint the pictures previously credited to her. Instead, they suspect that her house girl, Josephine, was actually the real artist. With more than a century of being denied credit for her paintings, Josephine would make the perfect example for Lina’s lawsuit, if the story is true and if she had any descendants. So, Lina sets off on a mission to learn more about Josephine and to answer those questions.

Meanwhile, in the chapters about Josephine, the reader gets a glimpse into what her life was like as a young, orphaned slave who was trained to be a house girl from the age of seven. Her relationship with her mistress, Lu Anne, is particularly interesting because Lu Anne treats Josephine well, though her position as a slave is still obvious. Josephine feels she can no longer tolerate captivity and plots her escape, while her mistress’s illness gets worse.

I enjoy novels like this, where two disparate stories slowly come together. Josephine’s chapters reminded me very much of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, which I read last year for another book group; one of the narrators was also a house girl. There were many similar elements there, with the same sort of glimpse into the hidden lives (and the horrors) of the slaves’ experiences. There were some surprising plot twists (though not the one that I expected from the beginning!), and the story moves along at a fast pace. Everyone in my book group enjoyed The House Girl, and it got one of our highest group ratings ever!

370 pages, William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)

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