With a nod to A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” “The House Girl” comes to us in two alternating strands: a mystery in the past and a search for answers in the present.
Josephine is a restless young slave in 1852. The once-prosperous Virginia farm where she lives is failing under the mismanagement of a master who has neither the funds nor the skill to maintain the plantation. His wife, the dying mistress of Bell Creek, fancies herself a painter, but Josephine is the real artist of the affecting portraits that will someday be regarded as masterpieces of 19th-century American art.
In the novel’s alternating chapters, we follow the detective work of Lina Sparrow in 2004. A new associate with a prestigious New York law firm, she and another young lawyer are charged with preparing the largest legal case in the history of the world: a class-action lawsuit demanding $6.2 trillion from the U.S. government and 22 corporations on behalf of millions of descendants of African American slaves. Because “this is a biggie,” as her boss puts it, that relies on a “new legal theory,” Lina is given two weeks to prepare. Such are the demands on young lawyers hoping to make partner. Next month, she might sue the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
The legal and moral arguments for paying reparations to the descendants of African American slaves would be a rich and fascinating subject, but the cringing absurdities of this plot multiply like a senior partner’s billable hours. It isn’t enough for Lina to sue the U.S. government for an amount equal to a sizable percentage of the GDP; she decides that she must first solve a 150-year-old mystery of art history involving Josephine’s paintings. And given the millions of aggrieved descendants of slaves who might make powerful lead plaintiffs in the reparations case, why not insist on recruiting only an extremely reluctant, mixed-race hunk who might or might not be related to Josephine?
These would seem to be formidable challenges for any new lawyer and amateur sleuth, but fortunately, every time Lina cracks open an old notebook, out falls some revelatory clue that has eluded generations of scholars.
Reparations for slavery may be a long shot, but Lina should have a strong case against any English teacher who still advises, “Write what you know.” Conklin actually worked as a lawyer at a New York law firm, and yet these familiar parts of her novel display the glib artificiality of someone who learned about office life by watching TV. This silly legal drama has been bred with an engrossing slave story in a tragic act of literary miscegenation. Far too many flags are raised to mark significant parallels between Josephine’s situation and Lina’s. A bolder editor would have sliced away these modern bits and published “The House Girl” as a good historical novel.
Every chapter about Josephine is infused with ominous atmosphere and evocative detail. As Bell Creek falls into ruin, Conklin explores the shifting responsibilities of slave and master, student and teacher, patient and nurse. While she never reaches the psychological depth of Toni Morrison or Edward P. Jones, she does convey the impossibly bizarre relationships that slavery created. Spared from the crushing labor of farm work, Josephine finds that she is “not of one world or the other, neither the house nor the fields.” She and her dying mistress care for each other within a system of institutionalized brutality that neither of them openly acknowledges.
If Josephine can’t enjoy actual freedom, she still manages to feel a kind of triumphant pity for this sickly white woman, lashed in matrimony to a genteel pedophile and rapist who enjoys all the unquestioned privileges of Southern culture: “It was Missus’ face, stricken even in sleep, sallow even by lamplight, the scabbed gash like a bristling insect on her cheek, that stopped Josephine. Her face no longer young or beautiful, her wasted face. And it seemed Josephine’s heart pulsed with the skittering movement of Missus’ eyes, that the two of them lay prostrate together before the same cruel God. The two of them not so different after all, Josephine realized. All this time, these long, hungry years, each of them alone beside the other.”
That lush, gothic tone simmers throughout these 1852 chapters, enriched periodically by letters from two white people who tried to help Josephine. It’s a dramatic montage of narrative and personal testimonies that depicts the grotesque routines of the slave trade, the deadly risks of the Underground Railroad and the impossible choices that slaves and abolitionists faced.
If only Josephine’s stirring tale had been emancipated from the story of her modern-day defender, “The House Girl” might have run free.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.