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19 February 2014

Tara Conklin: The House Girl

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Did she run?
Tara Conklin has written an ambitious début novel taking a very different slant to a historical novel about slavery. The story of "The House Girl" intertwines the stories of two women separated by time. Josephine Bell was a house slave in Virginia in the mid 19th Century always thinking about running north to freedom. In the present, Lina Sparrow is an ambitious junior lawyer working on a landmark case for reparations for the cost of slavery, who is tasked at finding descendants of a slave who can act as the prime plaintiff in the case.

The story of Josephine was fairly compelling and page turning as she agonised if and when to run and where to go. Josephine was lighter skinned because her unknown father was a slave owner. She started looking after Lu Anne Bell when she was no more than a child, being at her beck and call every day. While Lu Anne treated her well by the standards of the day, even teaching her to read and write and draw and paint, every day Josephine thought about making a run for freedom. She tried once but physical problems made her come back on her own accord. Will she make another run?

The best part of  the story of Lina was her attempt to unravel Josephine's secrets and find her descendents. The rest of her story was a bit mixed with unnecessary character and plot lines which went nowhere. While I admired Lina's perseverance in tracking down what may have happened to Josephine, I couldn't build up any real affinity to her as a person or to what she was asked to do. The feasibility of a cloud-cuckooland trillion dollar class action slavery reparations case is only briefly questioned and it is hard to fathom why Josephine's story is so compelling when there are so many other better known stories around. Lina's family story about the loss of her mother and her relationship with her father was almost superfluous padding.

At the start of the book I thought that it was a winner - part way through it started to lose me. All in all while I found the book well written and researched and some parts about Josephine fascinating, I really didn't connect to Lina's part in the story or to her character.

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