For Josephine there existed no greater joy than this. The faint pepper smell of the homemade paper, the gritty charcoal dust misting the space around her fingers, her fingers moving faster than her kind could determine where to draw this line, that shadow, the picture emerging from her in a rush as though no distance existed between the paper and her mind’s eye, they inhabited the same interior space, the same intimate world that belonged to her and her alone.
The House Girl is the story of two women, separated by a century and a half (1852 – 2004), and race. The two interwoven tales (hardly ever do I read a book told from just one perspective these days) depict the contrasting lives of a slave girl and a modern-day corporate grunt.
Josephine has decided that today is the day, a “gathering of disparate desires that before had been scattered”, and that “today was the last day, there would be no others.”
She is determined to leave. To leave behind her Missus Lu. To run. Run. Run.
And in modern day New York City, Lina Sparrow, first-year litigation associate, is assigned a new case, a lawsuit for reparations on behalf of descendants of slaves. Lina at first takes on this new case just like any other she has worked on, but when her artist father tells about about a controversy in the art world involving Josephine, the house girl of celebrated southern painter Lu Anne Bell, she is intrigued and believes they have made their case.
Josephine’s tale is one of uncertainty. Where to run, when to go, how far can she make it? Her own life as house girl is neither here nor there.
“She was just like the horse, the chicken or cow, something to be fed and housed, to do what it was born and raised to do. Josephine was not of one world or the other, neither the house nor the fields. This she could not explain to them, not even to Lottie or Winton, that she belonged nowhere.”
And in a sense, so is Lina’s story. Behind that confident exterior lies a young woman who longs to know what her mother was like, as her father has refused for years to say anything about her: “Instead, Lina recalled only a vanishing, an absence, an ache.”
A woman who has buried herself in her work, and for what?
“His words evoked in Lina a combination of indignation and shame. Gone was her excited buzz, and in its place a creeping nausea. Lina stood there in front of him, motionless, waiting for him to raise his eyes again so she could – what? Defend herself? Argue with him? No, she couldn’t. Those kinds of exchanges didn’t happen at Clifton, at least no between a partner and a first-year associate. She marveled at Dan’s poise, the unapologetic exercise of his presumed right to be an ass.”
But something in the reparations lawsuit, in Josephine’s story, lights a fire in her, and she throws herself into the research, haunted by the paintings that she’s seen (attributed to Lu Anne Bell), such as one of children, which “hit Lina with a force she wasn’t expecting, in a way her father’s paintings never had. Her reaction here was emotional, not intellectual, and for once she wanted to leave it at that, without searching for clues to analyze, references to dissect. She couldn’t explain why this boy’s enigmatic face captivated her, nor did she want to explain it. Looking was enough”.
And the reader unravels Josephine’s story alongside Lina, as she travels to Virginia to locate evidence of Josephine’s descendant, uncovering letters and documents that mention the house girl, who in the only photograph of her is shown with “hands clasped before her, the fingers tensely intertwined as though one hand pulled the other from a turbulent sea. Her eyes were fogged as if in motion. Perhaps she had looked beyond the photographer. Perhaps she had contemplated the road ahead.”
The House Girl is the story of two women, but Josephine’s tale is the far more compelling one, whereas Lina’s First-World problems sometimes just got in the way (plus if she could research her way to Josephine Bell and her descendants, couldn’t she have found out more about her own mother?). Lina’s research also seemed a little too fruitful – open a notebook and all the right information jumps out at her. Sure, I understand that there is a need to speed that part of the story along, but as a former research assistant and journalist (and graduate student) who had once upon a time combed my way through various documents in the British Library (just pencils! No pens!), listened to recorded interviews and read transcripts at the National Archives of Singapore, made myself half-blind flipping through microfilms at the National Library of Singapore, I know how tedious research can be, searching for that right interview, for that right newspaper article, that very page in that old book, to find that one sentence that puts the “a” (as in “aaaaahhhhh” – a big sigh of relief) or the “ha!” (as in “hahahahahaha” – a sign of impending insanity) back in “aha!”. So to be given, what, two weeks (?), to find a plaintiff, to comb through historical documents, to find a descendant? Now that is, well, I wouldn’t say impossible, but just highly unlikely.
However, this probably wouldn’t be too big a deal for most readers, it’s probably just me.
So for me the book was more about Josephine and a little about wishing there were less of Lina. Perhaps it might have worked better as two separate books, instead of two interwoven stories. Still, despite its a terribly feminine cover (the kind that induces me to not pick up a book), it was a good read, dramatic at parts, with a variety of written forms – art essays, historical letters – utilized to keep the narrative moving.
Tara Conklin has worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a corporate law firm but now devotes her time to writing fiction. She received a BA in history from Yale University, a JD from New York University School of Law, and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Born in St. Croix, she grew up in Massachusetts and now lives with her family in Seattle, Washington. The House Girl is her first novel.
I received this book for review from its publisher via TLC Book Tours.
Tuesday, November 5th: Read Lately
Thursday, November 7th: A Bookish Affair
Monday, November 11th: Books in the Burbs
Tuesday, November 12th: Jorie Loves a Story
Wednesday, November 13th: Peppermint PhD
Thursday, November 14th: Lavish Bookshelf
Monday, November 18th: Olduvai Reads
Tuesday, November 19th: BoundbyWords
Wednesday, November 20th: Book-alicious Mama
Tuesday, November 26th: A Bookish Way of Life