The House Girl marks Tara Conklin's debut novel.
The story is told in two narratives - that of Josephine a 17 yr old house slave in 1850's Virginia and Lina - a class action lawyer in 2004 New York.
The opening chapter belonged to Josephine and I was immediately captivated. She is planning to run - and it won't be the first time.
“Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run. She heard the whistle of the blow, felt the sting of skin against skin, her head spun and she was looking back over her right shoulder, down to the fields where the few men Mister had left were working the tobacco.”
Lina's law firm is looking for the "perfect plaintiff" to be the 'face' of a lawsuit being brought, seeking reparations for descendants of American slaves. She stumbles across Josephine's name through her father's work. He is an artist and there is great controversy concerning who really painted a series of paintings attributed to Josephine's 'Missus' - Lu Anne Bell. Was it Lu Anne or was it the slave Josephine?
Lina's narrative follows the search for the descendants and I found this part of the story extremely interesting. Lina is also going through her own personal difficulties - she has her own family issues that have been left untended for many years. I wanted to like Lina more than I did. Although she is a high powered lawyer, she is still a petulant child with her father. And given that she is highly intelligent and quite adept at research, I cannot believe that she never sought to confirm the details of her mother's life and death. By the middle of the book I found myself speed reading through her sections.
It was Josephine's story that grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go. I know it's a fictionalization, but Conklin has based her novel on facts. Heartbreaking facts. Additional narrators are introduced through their letters - that of a slave doctor and a young woman whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I enjoyed these sections very much as well.
I chose to listen to The House Girl. The reader was Bahni Turpin. She was excellent - her interpretation of Josephine chillingly brought her story to life. The cadence and tone she used for Lina was completely different of course, but I found it matched what I thought of Lina - a bit whiny. The accents used for other characters - especially that of Lu Anne Bell were excellent and believable.
This one is poised to be the darling of book clubs everywhere. There is a reading group guide. I did enjoy this debut effort, but there are other books dealing with slavery (and in a deeper manner) that I would recommend ahead of this title. Still, it was an entertaining listen. Listen to an excerpt. Or start off reading an excerpt of The House Girl.
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