Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The House Girl

The House Girl

Author: Tara Conklin
Genre: Historical Fiction (Slavery)
Type: Paperback
Pages: 370
First Published: February 2012
Publisher: William Morrow
First Line: Lynnhurst, Virginia 1852 -- "Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run."

Book Description from GoodReadsVirginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell. New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.

It is through her father, the renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers Josephine Bell and a controversy roiling the art world: are the iconic paintings long ascribed to Lu Anne Bell really the work of her house slave, Josephine? A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the reparations lawsuit—if Lina can find one. While following the runaway girl’s faint trail through old letters and plantation records, Lina finds herself questioning her own family history and the secrets that her father has never revealed: How did Lina’s mother die? And why will he never speak about her?

Moving between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing, suspenseful and heartbreaking tale of art and history, love and secrets, explores what it means to repair a wrong and asks whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.

My Review:  From the description of this book I should have loved it.  It deals with the era of slavery and it got great ratings from other readers.  Unfortunately, the raw emotional element that I've come to expect from books that deal with slavery -- that showcases the worst of human kind and the hope and resilience of the human spirit -- was missing in this book.

After reading books like "Roots" by Alex Haley (one of my all-time favourite books that I read before I started the blog, hence no review), "The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom or Lawrence Hill's "The Book of Negroes" I've come to expect that raw emotional connection with the main character(s) and I just didn't get that here.  Perhaps it was because the story flips back and forth between two eras (modern day and the mid-1800's)?  Or perhaps the dual narration between Lina, a modern day lawyer and Josephine, a slave from antebellum Virginia was what didn't click with me?

Whatever it was, I found myself skimming paragraphs in the hopes that the plot would pick up.  Unfortunately not a lot of detail was given to life on the plantation (besides Josephine's life in the house) and I was a little surprised by that.  The secondary characters, namely the other slaves, were vastly underused and were only in the periphery of the story which was a shame because it would have given the reader a better understanding of what life was like back then.

I think that the lack of emotional element in this book also stems from the fact that the story seems to meander along and doesn't give the reader time to really get to know Lina or Josephine so that we can get emotionally attached to them.  Josephine was mildly interesting but I didn't click with Lina at all.  She was bland, wasn't all that likeable and, I suspect, will be quite forgettable.  For a successful lawyer she felt very meek and I had no interest in her family issues.  She is a successful lawyer and yet she never once thought to use her resources to learn more about her mother's death?  Or even ask her father about it?  It just seemed odd and out of character.

There were also a lot of coincidences involving Lina's storyline, especially stumbling upon (the extremely LONG) letters that shed light into Josephine's life as well as meeting someone connected to Josephine's story in such a random place.  It felt very implausible and that kind of thing really irks me.  I need for storylines and characters to be believable and the way the author told the story by using these letters felt like a short cut.  I'd much rather see how the character dealt with situations than read about it in a letter.

And while the idea of the reparations legal suit was an interesting premise (reparations for the modern day relatives of the victims of slavery) the thought that this was a highly unlikely situation kept niggling at the back of my mind.  What law firm would want to undertake such a huge and volatile case? 

This was a decent read but not nearly as wonderful or emotional as I was hoping for.  I'd highly suggest reading Roots, The Kitchen House or The Book of Negroes if you're looking for an in-depth, emotional read about this very disturbing era in American history.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

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