The House Girl
By Tara Conklin
HarperCollins, 384 pages, $23
There is a kind of bottomless longing evoked by the old African-American spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.
That longing acts like an undertow throughout this intriguing debut historical novel, and binds the two main characters whose lives could otherwise not be more different -- an artistic young female house slave in antebellum Virginia, and a modern-day white corporate lawyer aiming to make partner by the time she is 30.
Seattle-based author Tara Conklin worked many years as a litigator, and her observations of a beige legal world ring true. Her first published fiction appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology. That short story forms the jumping-off point for this novel.
Seventeen-year-old Josephine has never left the plantation except for one disastrous attempt at escape. The seriously ill "Missus," Lu Anne Bell, has secretly taught Josephine to read and allowed her -- at times -- to share the artist's studio. Josephine creates skilful portraits of daily life, including the slave woman who is the only mother she has ever known, but is destined to remain anonymous.
Her watercolour of the house and grounds hangs on the wall while Missus takes credit for it. Solidly based on documents like actual interviews with slaves, Conklin's research blends subtly into the background while successfully rendering a picture of the complex tensions inherent in 1850s society.
The book opens with a violent slap from "Mister." Vowing it to be the last one, Josephine prepares to run away that very same day, planning to take along a few of her own art works.
As in so many other novels about slavery -- Jubilee, Beloved and The Known World to name a few outstanding ones -- the dialect used in Conklin's original short story has quite a powerful impact. Not quite so in this novel. Josephine's inner life dominates over dialogue, and when she does speak, it's in a modified dialect, which dampens the effect.
Chapters about Lina spring to life in comparison. In 2004, she is madly researching a case that is headed for posterity. A wealthy African-American client has launched a suit seeking trillions in reparations for the harm done by slavery.
Someone with a photogenic face is required, who will serve as a symbol for the descendants of former slaves.
Her painter father tells her about the art world's latest controversy regarding the works of Lu Anne Bell, now revered by feminists and art historians. An exhibit is about to open that argues that it was in fact the house girl, Josephine Bell, who painted some of the best pieces. Could a descendant of Josephine's be the face Lina is looking for?
Meanwhile, Lina's father is preparing a major show of his own; for the first time in 20 years he is ready to paint his wife, Lina's mother, and is ready to break his complete silence on the topic of her death.
Like Josephine, Lina has no knowledge of her mother's past or family; she has only the vaguest recollection of a sense of belonging.
A suspenseful parallel search ensues. Archival letters (some found a little too easily), articles, and notes, which Conklin carries off well in distinctly different styles, provide clues to the fate of both Lina's mother and Josephine.
The end result is a historical novel that succeeds in giving voice to the voiceless. Hopefully this is only the beginning for Tara Conklin.
Ursula Fuchs, a Winnipeg nurse, can relate to the suspense of hunting through archives.