Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Summary: Virginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell. New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, a first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.

Lina discovers Josephine and a controversy roiling the art world: are the iconic paintings long ascribed to Lu Anne Bell really the work of her slave, Josephine? A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the reparations lawsuit – if Lina can find one. While following the girl’s faint trail, Lina finds herself questioning her own family history and the secrets that her father has never revealed: How did Lina’s mother die? And why will he never speak about her?

Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 2.5/5 stars

I’m just going to come right out and say it: a white woman who quit her job in law should not be writing a book about slavery. There were a lot of other problems with this book, but this was the most upsetting to me. It’s so important to share (and it’s obviously okay!) to fictionalize slavery. However, Black characters in these stories should not be known simply for being enslaved. They were more than that. They defined themselves by other aspects of their lives. Were they enslaved? Yes. Was it the only trait they had? Absolutely not. These were real people, and it’s crucial in a story to ensure that Black slaves are remembered as more than just slaves.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Josephine is the most interesting part of this story, but she gets the least amount of screen time, despite the book allegedly being about her. When the story ends, the reader has learned almost nothing about who Josephine was as a person, other than an artist. We know some of her backstory, we know how her life ends, but what does her laughter sound like? How does she grieve? How does she spend her alone time? We see that she’s loyal to her mistress, but we have no idea what her relationships are like with others. We’re given a glance here and there, but there’s nothing solidifying her as a real character. Josephine exists purely to be a slave, purely to be a convenience to a white woman in present day, purely to move the story along. She’s given the book’s title and cover art, but she’s completely lost to us because the author refused to make her the most important story arc.

Tara Conklin used to work in law, and it shows. Lina is a boring character with zero positive attributes who constantly speaks in time as “1.4 billable hours.” The writing here is completely bogged down by useless information about law; a ridiculous lawsuit that would never happen in real life; and graphs that aren’t informative or beneficial to the reader. There’s a scene where Lina is looking through some paperwork and finds a list of names of slaves. The next paragraph, over a page and a half in length, is a solid wall of text of first and last names. She quickly follows that by adding an actual table graph with initials under certain headings. Did Conklin expect us to read every single name? Were we supposed to fully observe the work done here? I wondered if they were potentially real names that she found in her research and wanted to honor those people by inserting them into her story, but I found no answers. The most common phrase in writing a book is “showing, not telling,” but it’s not meant to be taken so literally.

I really struggled in the second half of this story when the plot panned out through letters from the 1850s that Lina found. Letter format is such a dull copout to me. The author had no problem writing in different perspectives, so I didn’t understand why she felt she had to stick to the letter format here. She could have still had Lina discover the letters, ended the chapter, and followed the next chapter through the letter writer’s perspective. This is done twice in the story, and both times the letters take up almost exactly 50 pages. That’s a massive amount of information to dump on a reader in such a boring format, especially because both times it covers way more history than we ever truly need to learn. And sadly, this is where we lose Josephine.

Her chapters suddenly vanish, and even though the letters are focused somewhat on her character, we spend the second half of the book only seeing her through the eyes of other people – specifically white people. There is nothing genuine in Josephine’s character, because she’s almost exclusively seen through the eyes of white people, either in present day or the past. This is especially infuriating, as the author answered in the Q&A at the end of the book, that writing Josephine came more easily and naturally to her than Lina did. Bold words, considering Lina is a self-insert and Conklin isn’t a Black woman who endured slavery.

Racial and structural issues aside, what does this book give us? Not much. The story focuses so heavily on Lina and her personal life (a dead mother, a secretive artsy father, a job she loves to hate, even a subtle hint at a relationship), and none of these arcs are interesting. I found myself skimming largely through Lina’s chapters until I found something worth reading, but it was still a bit of a joke. Lina was such a contradictory character, so dense and dull, that I never found any attachment to her. I didn’t care about her bad relationship with her parents, and I didn’t want to see it resolved. I found her so stiff and robotic that even a glimpse of a romantic relationship seemed so far out of left field that I wasn’t interested.

I found it laughable that the story initially started with Lina doing research on a civil lawsuit case she was assigned, and through incredibly convenient timing, everything pans out for her. When Lina finally reaches a break in her case and things are starting to look good, the author completely scraps the lawsuit storyline and gives everyone a pseudo happy ending instead. Lina’s loose ends are tied up, and that’s what matters.

Because this was never really a book about a Black slave. This was always about a white woman who used the story of a Black woman to benefit herself.

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