The opening scene of Tara Conklin’s novel The House Girl places readers on the porch of a Virginia home in 1852 to witness a moment that forever changes the life of Josephine, the house slave. The slap received from her master solidifies a notion in her head– she must run.
The next chapter jumps forward in time, introducing Lina, a young lawyer in New York City in 2004. Lina is driven by her work, and there’s little room in her life for much of anything else. Billable hours overshadow the other mundane aspects of her life, and beyond her relationship with her father, with whom she still shares a home, she has very few meaningful personal relationships. The loss of her mother at a young age has had an undeniable affect on her willingness to get close to people.
Lina’s boss invites her to work on what could be the biggest case of her life, one that could become a piece of history. She soon finds herself steeped in research about slavery in the United States in support of a historical reparations claim on behalf of the descendents of slaves. Though intriguing work, Lina struggles to accomplish the task of finding a descendent to be the face of the claim, until she hears about the controversial story questioning the authenticity of a 19th century Virginia artist’s work. Previously acclaimed for her paintings of slaves owned by her husband, Lu Anne Bell’s work is now under scrutiny, and evidence is mounting to show that the work may have actually been created by her house girl, Josephine. Lina meets a man who just might be a relative of Josephine Bell, but Lina must get enough evidence to put all the pieces of this puzzle together.
The intersection of Josephine and Lina’s stories was interesting. Scenes from both time periods came to life believably on the page, and both characters’ deep emotions were conveyed in a compelling manner. Though Josephine and Lina lived entirely different lives, they certainly share some similar emotions and turmoil in finding their individual identities, and this helped to bring their stories together. I found the emotional arcs in The House Girl to be sketched out well, and I didn’t want to stop reading until I discovered the fates of both Josephine and Lina.
Dawn’s emotions frequently get a workout through her reading, and her children have gotten used to seeing her with a book in hand and a tissue box by her side. She blogs at my thoughts exactly.