The House Girl by Tara Conklin

house girlSeparated by over 150 years, two young women struggle to shape their own futures in very different circumstances.  In 1852, seventeen year old house slave Josephine Bell decides to run away from the deteriorating Virginia farm where she acts as nurse and housekeeper for Lu Anne Bell, a sickly amateur artist.  Over a century and a half later in 2004 New York City, ambitious young lawyer Lina Sparrow is handed the case of a lifetime; her boss asks her to find the ideal plaintiff for a monumental class action lawsuit seeking reparations for modern descendants of American slaves.  As she begins her search, Lina’s famous artist father Oscar Sparrow mentions a scandal rocking the art world; evidence has surfaced that renowned Southern antebellum painter Lu Anne Bell’s sympathetic slave portraits might have actually been the work of her house slave Josephine.  Intrigued, Lina dives into research and as she traces Josephine’s long forgotten story through attics and archives, she begins to questions her own family’s secrets–her mother’s mysterious death and her father’s continued silence on the subject.

Moving back and forth between Josephine and Lina’s lives, this layered novel explores  truth, storytelling, and justice through a suspenseful historical art mystery intertwined with intense human drama.  This strong genre-bending debut is filled with three dimensional characters, elegant writing, and a complex plot that gains momentum as it unfolds.  I found  Josephine and Lina’s narratives equally compelling and I was particularly impressed by Conklin’s ability to spin their separate stories into a comprehensive whole, bound together by both plot events and themes.  Additionally, Lina’s search for the truth about Josephine becomes a truly page-turning mystery; Conklin’s pacing and careful construction makes a potential dry history into a thrilling, heart-stopping quest.

As a (currently somewhat rusty) painter, I have always been particularly attracted to fiction featuring visual art.  House Girl explores art from a variety of perspectives, investigating both the power of art in an individual’s life and exploring the ways that art history is human history.  Josephine’s and Oscar’s paintings simultaneously hide and reveal secrets;  their art and their identities as artists directly affect the story’s events.  So it’s disappointing that the novel doesn’t include many scenes explicitly exploring Josephine as a painter from her perspective.  It might be my own background as a painter, but I wanted to hear more about Josephine’s experience as an artist–especially since her painting directly contradicts the dehumanization of slaves enforced by slaveholders, the legal system, and society at large. Creating art is an incredibly human act and one that allows stories to be told across many social and cultural barriers–as this novel ultimately demonstrates.

In all, House Girl is a satisfying and thought-provoking novel likely to attract a range of readers.  While it is published as an adult novel, Tara Conklin’s debut will appeal to both adults and older teens–especially those with an interest in historical fiction and/or art history.  Josephine is a teenager herself and Lina is in her mid-twenties & just beginning her adult life after years of schooling.  Their stories of self-discovery and identity development will resonate with young–and old–readers.  I’m adding The House Girl to my informal list of  2014 Alex Award contenders and look forward to seeing more from Tara Conklin in the future!

A definite 4 out of 5 stars for this lovely debut novel!

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