By Donna Williams Vance, Black Books and Reviews.com
When you finish a novel, and bask with the same satisfaction you get from a good meal, a stimulating phone conversation, or a successful business pitch, you know you’ve read a good book.
Tara Conklin’s debut, “The House Girl: A Novel,” is such a book. Conklin lays all those forms of contentment right in the reader’s lap, as her braided novel rewinds and fast-forwards between a fallow tobacco farm from which a young slave named Josephine flees, and the modern-day New York City streets upon which budding lawyer Lina Sparrow trods.
In leading the reader through “The House Girl,” Conklin uses language to mold her tale as deftly as a potter uses clay to craft a functional and beautiful vessel.
From the abruptness of the first sentence through the compassion of the last, Conklin’s “The House Girl” has the reader rapt and baited for the stories that lay ahead. Conklin’s first sentence, ”Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek…” is as gripping as Claude Brown’s ”Run!” from “Manchild in the Promised Land.” There begins our fulfilling relationship with Josephine, Lina and this thoughtful book.
In some abstract way, “House Girl,” could be deemed a mystery. Sometimes a whodunnit, but also a how-dunnit, what-dunnit and what has happened and what will happen next. One of her main characters has disappeared without a trace (or so it seems).
Conklin begins her story – not her book – when a young law associate is given a case for slave reparations. In her quest for a slave descendent to receive those reparations, Lina finds herself mired in controversy: one of art; one of authenticity; and one of her own: Is the art Josephine’s or her mistress’? Who foiled her escape attempt? What happened to Lina’s mother?
Not only are these questions raised – and eventually answered – we are also treated to a glimpse into Lina’s maturation process: She finds a potential love interest; she decides to strike out from beneath the comfort of her father and the only home she’s known; and we see her take advantage of her opportunities to grow, as she accepts her need to grow.
Josephine’s evolution is apparent as well. Her determined character was established at the outset of the book, and she puts it in motion. She tells herself her body belongs to her, “not belonging to Mister or Missus Lu or to the Lord above;” and Conklin writes that “it was only with this true belief, that she could tolerate the putting of one foot before the other, the drawing of another breath and another and another.”
Josephine is painted as a resolute character: adamant about not living in this state of slavery much longer. She has a sense of immediacy. One suspects it was the slap that did it. She shows little compassion, and has no regrets – just one resolve: to run. “Tonight,” Conklin writes.
What is especially appealing about “The House Girl,” however, is Conklin’s display of Josephine as an artist – revealing her as one who is able to create more than a good meal. Conklin has smartly highlighted the slave’s greatest ability, the ability to make something out of nothing (a trait that is quite coveted, as evidenced by this book’s post-bellum custody fight). Lina has exposed a piracy; and it is a piracy that has become too frequent and familiar when race and art are coupled. Here, black readers may find themselves quietly celebrating the fact that one from the opposing camp recognizes what is going on.
Conklin’s apt use of pathos and her successful balancing act of slave and slave-owner, father and daughter, woman of 1852 and woman of 2004 – make her a writer with empathy without condescension. She never teeters. Her footing on the subjects, be they slavery, family, art – is never compromised. Her use of language to relay this oft soap-operaesque tale almost allows one to be a passive reader, doing very little work, as Conklin deliberately, graphically and definitively moves along.
Along with pathos, Conklin defers to the senses to deliver her novel, to set the scene. Petrichor jumps from the pages, following a Virginia thunderstorm the night Josephine runs away. We hearing cattle lowing as the barn burns; we feel Josephine’s cut and swollen feet when she remembers “the last time (she) tried to run with no shoes;” and we see the vitality, beauty and pain in the sketches Lina discovers.
The stories within “The House Girl” – prime and sub – unfold, veer off, digress and return over 372 pages. Conklin has produced an inventive book, a tightly wound yarn that continues to unravel despite its containment.
About the Book Review Author
Donna Williams Vance is a former journalist with USA Today, the Philadelphia Daily News and the Charlotte Observer. She lives in Maryland.