Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Skilled slaves were often hired out as craftsmen and women. We know this because their masters and mistresses earned money from their talents. But what about those artistic talents that didn't earn money? What about a highly talented landscape painter and portraitist? Would her work, unsigned by her of course, be attributed wrongly to the not nearly so talented but definitely white mistress of the house who liked to dabble with paint? In Tara Conklin's novel, The House Girl, this question of authorship and art coupled with the themes of family and belonging twine throughout the complex dual narrative plot.

Lina Sparrow is a new lawyer. Raised by her charismatic artist father after her artist mother's death when she was small, she has worked hard to get where she is in life, juggling her own drive with taking care of her often times absent minded father. She is an up and coming star for her year at her very high powered law firm and she's just been asked to work on a slavery reparations class action lawsuit against the US government, provided she can find a suitable lead plaintiff to be the poster child for the suit. And this is the point where Lina's two lives, the controlled work life and the bohemian home life collide since she comes up with the idea for a lead plaintiff while at an exhibition with her father. She sees works by antebellum artist Lu Anne Bell who captured life on a southern plantation in her landscapes and portraits but it is the more and more generally accepted suggestion that Bell's best works were in actual fact painted by her house girl Josephine and claimed as Lu Anne's that is most interesting to Lina. And so she sets out to find out the truth about the paintings and if Josephine had any descendants who could possibly be the face of Lina's lawsuit.

While Lina's search for Josephine's fate and family goes on in the modern day, the novel also tracks Josephine's life in the pre-war years. She is an accomplished artist but her talent must be sublimated to her duties to her very ill mistress. The master of the plantation is a cruel and hard man, breaking not only his slaves but also his wife. Lina resolves to flee the Lynnhurst plantation right from the opening chapter of the novel although it takes her a long time to acquire the knowledge and the resolve to follow through with her desire to be free. Her tale of slavery is not unusual but that doesn't make the telling any easier.

The novel starts off exceedingly slowly and even though the reader knows that the parallel stories must converge, it took quite a while for Lina's search to line up with the goings on in Josephine's life, delaying the revelations that must come in the end. But eventually they did compliment each other better than in the beginning and worked to engage the reader. Josephine's life, although representative of so many slaves, was a fascinating one while Lina's life and work on the lawsuit was less interesting although her own search for the truth about her family as she searched for the truth about Josephine's possible descendants was an interesting parallel. The fact that Lina so easily finds what she is looking for though, where others have failed through the years, makes the ending to the novel unearned and although the trail of letters from both Dorothea and Caleb Harper concludes several plot threads quite tidily, both those instances were too deus ex machine and made for too easy and neat a conclusion. There are interesting themes in the novel, that of the personal and political connections to art, family and truth, the search for self, origins and provenance, and the complications of history to name just some and because of that the book is a good read if not a great one.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I'm curious about this novel but I'm worried that it starts off exceedingly slow. Does it ever pick up? thanks.

  2. I enjoyed reading your review. I thought this novel started out slowly too. I agree the wrap up through the found letters did seem to make the ending seem 'unearned.' Great review.


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