The House Girl

  • Tara Conklin
  • William Morrow
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Gerry Hogan
  • February 22, 2013

The intertwining stories of two very different women, one a 19th-century slave, one a modern-day junior attorney, drive this debut effort that represents several genres in one novel.

Mystery, historical novel, tale of self-discovery, polemic, commercial blockbuster, literary fiction — which does The House Girl, Tara Conklin’s beautifully written, carefully plotted debut novel, aspire to be? The answer, I believe, is “all of the above,” and that mighty aspiration is both strength and weakness. I hesitate to express any negativity about a book that so dazzled and possessed me from its artful first sentence — “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run” — until the stirring (if a bit melodramatic) conclusion 372 pages on. Yes, I’m like that guy who returns from a week in Hawaii complaining that it rained for an hour every afternoon. I know it’s ungrateful, but the vacation would have been better without the rain.

The House Girl is the story of two determined young women: 17-year-old Josephine, a house slave living on Bell Creek, a Virginia plantation, in 1852, and 20-something Lina, a first-year associate at a big New York law firm in 2004. As the novel begins, Josephine is determined to escape her bondage by fleeing northward, while Lina is determined … well, just generally determined, until one of the firm’s partners assigns her to a case involving a claim of reparations for the descendants of former slaves. Their stories, told in alternating chapters, intertwine as Lina becomes aware of a controversy involving the authenticity of American primitive paintings previously thought to be the work of one Lu Anne Bell, the wife of the owner of Bell Creek.

This controversy is sparked when an esteemed New York art critic asserts that the valuable paintings were actually the work of Josephine, the house girl. From early on in the Josephine narrative, which describes with visceral intensity and emotional complexity the violent and perverse power structure at Bell Creek, we know the truth of the art critic’s theory. Josephine, though a gifted artist, has no power, no claim to her work, because of her status. Lina decides that she must find Josephine’s progeny, these unknowing heirs to her artistic legacy, and surely worthy plaintiffs for the reparations case.

Conklin is a writer of exceptional skill, and nowhere is this talent more evident than when she describes life at Bell Creek. I felt transported in time and place to this lush antebellum hell, awful yet lovely. Conklin takes us on a richly descriptive tour of the grounds, from dusty drawing room to ramshackle slave quarters, “down the low slope to the vegetable garden with its tangled rows and a thicket of raspberry and blackberry bushes grown together, fruit mostly for the birds because it reached too high and went too deep for Josephine to collect it.” Everything at Bell Creek is tangled, on the verge of rot. And Conklin is equally adept at making us feel Lina’s stultifying existence at the soulless law firm, “her office a cave of paper and tented textbooks, the cursor blinking relentlessly on her screen.” The book jacket tells us Conklin spent some years at such a firm, and plainly she did not have an altogether positive experience.

The novel has so many strengths that it is hard to know which to highlight, but the quality of the dialogue and mastery of narrative pacing stand out. I instinctively believed every word spoken by Conklin’s characters, the antebellum Southerners and the law firm partners. Particularly impressive was the way she nailed the correspondence of the Rounds sisters, abolitionists who are minor if essential characters in Josephine’s flight, as well as in Lina’s quest to determine whether the young painter succeeded in finding freedom. One suspects that Conklin did extensive historical research and, upon doing so, used head and heart to find each voice, to inhabit truly these characters. But unlike many novelists who excel at voice and theme and pretty words, while turning up their noses at plot, mystery, and tension, Conklin has a keen sense of what the reader doesn’t yet know and yearns to find out. The novel is a page-turner and a genealogical detective story, and as Lina grows in investigative skill and resolve, Conklin achieves a brilliant fusion of characterization and storyline.

Now for the rain: Characterization and storyline are two of the novel’s great strengths, but there are aspects of each that diminish the book’s success. While I was thoroughly convinced by the way Conklin drew Josephine and all the supporting characters, Lina is less coherent. Lina has navigated her way through law school and a cutthroat work environment, and brings grit and curiosity to solving difficult mysteries, yet she is strangely passive and incurious about the mother who disappeared from her life when she was 5 years old. Moreover, Lina never questions the wisdom or feasibility of bringing a reparations case, which has to be a long shot at best. It seems to me that the only explanation for this selective flatness, these obvious holes in characterization, is that “The Plot Demanded It.” And Conklin’s plot or, rather, plots, though intricate and absorbing, rely on an increasingly implausible series of coincidences, so that at the conclusion of the novel, though moved and entertained, seconds later I heard that inner voice ask, “Really?” I can’t be more detailed without spoiling things, but I wish Conklin had resisted the urge to tie everything up with a neat bow.

Even with the quibbles, I highly recommend this novel to all readers: literary fiction snobs, consume-them-by-the-dozen mystery fans, or people somewhere in between. Tara Conklin can write, and this will not be the last time we hear her name.

Gerry Hogan is a lawyer, living in Columbia, Md.


comments powered by Disqus