Saturday, October 14, 2017

The House GIrl by Tara Conklin

Those nights felt like this now: a creative energy, a limitless enthusiasm, a faith that talent and will and work would ultimately prevail, and a fatalistic wryness about the whole spectacle too-- of course we are all creative and interesting, of course everyone will know our names, but tomorrow and the next day and the next we must go to our low-paying jobs where we sit on stools or take orders for food or clean up messes that no one else wants to clean; at least tonight we can say we are artists.
Tara Conklin gives us twinned heroines in The House Girl: Josephine, the titular character, a Virginian slave in the 1850s, and Lina, a young corporate lawyer in today's New York. The novel is written in flashes-glimpses of Josephine's life the day before she runs away and Lina as she unravels the story of Josephine's life as part of a slavery reparations case. Lina uncovers the mystery of both Josephine's escape and her life as an artist--her mistress, Lu Anne Bell, was a renowned Southern painter whose lauded pieces may have been largely Josephine's.

The back and forth works well here--the interplay between the two storylines as they move closer together is well done. and Conklin builds two interesting, layered female leads. Josephine is revealed through a variety of sources: her own chapters, but also "primary" sources in Lina's portions.

Despite dealing with slavery and all of its implications, this wasn't a particularly philosophical or reflective novel. Conklin weaves an engrossing, gripping story, and I enjoyed getting swept up into the narrative arc and the suspense, but the trade-off of that much action meant not much time or space for reflection. There are moments in sections from each protagonist where the characters pause and reflect, and Conklin doesn't gloss over the cruelties of slavery, but the jumping back in forth through time and the quick pace of the narrative made it hard for the emotional impact of slavery to land.

This wasn't the most thought-provoking novel I've read all year, but it was a quick and engaging read. As long as you don't expect any life-altering revelations about slavery, and are going in looking for some interesting ladies and a good story, it's worth a read!

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