Title: The House Girl
Author: Tara Conklin
Published: February 12th, 2013
When I read the premise, I thought I’d love this book. When I read the first chapters I realized I wouldn’t. The House Girl is an extremely dull book. There’s no way around it. The idea is intriguing: two parallel plot lines, a slave girl in 19th century Virginia and a present-day lawyer working on a class-action lawsuit for descendants of slaves. I’ve no doubt that the right writer could spin a compelling tale with that, having the narratives complement each other until they’re joined at the end when Lina finally finds out what happened to Josephine. Unfortunately, Tara Conklin is not that writer.
The prose is needlessly meandering. The reader is subjected to endless descriptions of, well, everything, until each scene is so bogged down with the description of the settee’s brass buttons and you’ve quite forgotten what’s even going on. I admit I started skimming about halfway through, but I don’t think I missed anything, because everything is repeated. Several times, in fact, if the author really wishes to hit you over the head with it. For example: the book will often make the point that (gasp!) slavery is bad.
The problem is that despite all the flowery descriptions I don’t know anything about the characters. They’re flat, a caricature of themselves. Take the character of Dorothea, for example, a third POV that appears halfway through the book (because Josephine’s narration was the only one even remotely interesting and so had to be suppressed). Dorothea lives with her father and mother. She writes letters to her married sister, talking about how they help fugitive slaves. There’s pages and pages of fake “letters” from Dorothea, and from those I have learned absolutely nothing about Dorothea’s personality, about what she’s like, her dreams and hopes. Yeah, she helps slaves, she wants to be an abolitionist, but if you take that away, she is nothing. Her family is equally unsubstantial.
It feels as if the author had a story to tell, and everyone and everything is a prop that must help the story along, no matter how implausible some bits will be in hindsight. Josephine says that the first time she ran she came back because of a pain in her side. Later we find out that it’s not true, she reached Dorothea’s family but decided to go back. It makes no sense for Josephine to be an unreliable narrator, so why would her memories be wrong? Yes, but we couldn’t mention Dorothea the first time around because she only appears halfway through the book, and Dorothea had to have met Josephine at some point because she had to write about her in her letter that Lina would read a hundred years later… Instead of having the characters shape the plot, it’s the plot that orders the characters along, making everything happen by means of contrived coincidences.
I’m sorry about giving this book one star only, because I still think that with a shorter page count (perhaps as a novella) the plot might have been salvageable. But the big revelation at the end about Lina’s mother? Yeah… Saw that coming.