Tag Archives: Indie Next

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).

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            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

The Author

The Author

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Book Review: The Light between Oceans

The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Scribner; 384 pages; $25).

 

There are times when I lose myself in a novel.  I am certain this has happened to you, too.  I disappear into the rhythms and cadence of a good story.  The characters I meet become like friends or family members.  The settings of these tales are places I have physically never been, yet I could tell you everything about them.  These are the stories that stay with me, novels I read and reread over and over again.

The Light between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, a native Australian, is just such a novel.  Stedman now lives in London, and her debut proves she is an author to watch.  Clear your calendar, because you will not want to do anything else once you begin reading The Light between Oceans.

Stedman sets her story primarily on the formidable isolated island of Janus Rock, off the western coast of Australia.  A lighthouse station, built in 1889, sits on the island like a sentinel.  Like the god the island is named for, Janus Rock “looks in the direction of two different oceans, down to the South Pole and up to the Equator.”  The god Janus has two faces, “back to back.”  The island also has two faces: beautiful one minute and ugly the next.

For a lightkeeper, life on Janus Rock can be a nightmare.  Stedman illustrates the utter isolation he can feel, especially when alone on the island.  Often, the only visitors are the supply boat.  It is a lonely existence.  So much so that Trimble Docherty, the light keeper, went crazy and had to be replaced.  Enter Tom Sherbourne and, later, his wife, Isabel.  Tom takes over the light.  The job is difficult–difficult enough to make or break people and make or break marriages.

One day, a small boat washes ashore on Janus Rock.  Inside is a dead man and a living baby.  Isabel believes the child is a “gift from God.”  She urges her husband not to signal the authorities, or at least not yet.  Give it a day or two, she begs.

The appearance of the baby is a prayer answered for Isabel.  In heartbreaking and affecting passages, Stedman describes Isabel’s two miscarriages and one stillbirth.  I was overcome to see Isabel wash the body of her dead child.  She is a broken woman, longing for a child.  Suddenly, one appears out of nowhere.  Isabel wants to raise the baby as hers and Tom’s.  The mother, Isabel thinks, must have drowned before the boat landed on the island.  She wants this baby girl more than anything else in the whole world.  Stedman writes, “In a place far beyond awareness, the flood of chemicals which until so recently had been preparing her body for motherhood, conspired to engineer her feelings, guide her muscles.”  Isabel’s instincts “rushed back to life.”  This fact is not lost on her husband.

Tom is Stedman’s strongest character, even more so than Isabel.  A former World War I soldier, Tom is serious and steadfast.  “The idea of honor,” for Tom, “was a kind of antidote to some of the things he’d lived through.”  A meticulous record keeper, Tom records everything in his logbook.  It is part of his job.  “A lightkeeper accounts for things,” Stedman gently reminds us.  “Every article in the light station is listed, stored, maintained, inspected.  No item escapes official scrutiny.”  He is not one to take liberties with the logbook.  Tom, in fact, “relishes the language” [of the logbook].  “When he thinks back to the chaos, the years of manipulating facts, or the impossibility of knowing, let alone describing, what the bloody hell was going on while explosions shattered the ground all around him, he enjoys the luxury of stating a simple truth.”  Tom is not a man to break rules.

Isabel throws Tom’s honor in his face.  “But what are those rules for?  They’re to save lives!”  When Tom says he just cannot lie about the dead man and the baby washing ashore, Isabel explodes: “How can you be so hard-hearted?  All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.”  Tom finally acquiesces, in part because he feels responsible for the miscarriages and stillbirth.  He is the reason they are on the rock, after all.  He does not mention the dead man and baby in the log; instead, he buries the body of the man and pushes the boat back out to sea.

Isabel and Tom raise the baby as their own.  Tom, though, carries around such guilt.  One day, it is abundantly clear, he will no longer be able to live with what he has done.  One day, it will be too much for him to bear.  One day, the secret will come out.

The Light between Oceans moves at a fast clip.  Although Stedman’s two main characters are Tom and Isabel, she also introduces other characters into the story.  Her ability to get us into their heads is masterful and even unexpected, especially when it comes to the struggles of a grieving mother.

Honestly, I felt like I was complicit in Tom and Isabel’s crime.  I fervently hoped they would keep the baby.  I urged Tom to lie.  I felt as if I were aiding and abetting criminals.  I rationalized with Tom; I sympathized with Isabel.  But then I felt the guilt, just like Tom.  Stedman drags the reader into this moving story and does not let go.

I miss Janus Rock.  I miss Tom and Isabel.  If you get caught up in Stedman’s debut, you will miss them too.  Stedman seduces the reader into helping cover up a crime.  The Light between Oceans mesmerizes the reader.  It truly does.  What is right and what is wrong?  Is everything black and white?  Or do grey areas really exist?  In a web of lies, can the truth ever come out?  The Light between Oceans is like a siren’s song–beautiful and impossible to resist.

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Going Wild

Going Wild

 Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner; 240 pages; $24).

 

            In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman explores how we are shaped by nature and how, in turn, nature shapes us.  Sometimes our relationship with nature is beautiful, but sometimes it can turn brutal. Bergman’s short story debut collection, which consists of twelve stories, is deeply moving and intensely thought-provoking.

Many of Bergman’s stories concentrate on the theme of motherhood.  Bergman tells all of her stories from the point of view of women.  This technique makes sense.  Women, like female animals, have the ability to create and sustain life.  We nurture and ferociously protect our young.  In “Housewifely Arts,” one of my favorites and one of Bergman’s strongest, a woman and her son go on a desperate journey to find her dead mother’s African Gray Parrot.  What is so special about this creature, you may ask.  The bird mimics the mother’s voice and she wants to hear her once again.  The woman in the story longs to reconnect with her mother; her desire is fruitless.  Other women in Bergman’s tale want to have children of their own.  In “The Urban Coop,” a childless woman is so close to her dog that the canine suffers separation anxiety and an accident when he is not with his mistress.  The dog substitutes for a child.  In “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” an alcoholic holds a wild animal in her arms and seeks atonement for the way she raised her daughter.  In another of my favorites, “Yesterday’s Whales,” Bergman introduces us to a woman whose boyfriend believes the end of the world is nigh.  He sees no point in bringing children into a world that is a ticking time bomb.  The woman gets pregnant and is then forced to make a choice.  Bergman writes with cleverness and compassion.  These stories will fill you with emotion.  However, not all these tales are about motherhood.

Other stories focus on nature and the environment.  In Bergman’s title story and another of her finest, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” a young woman hires an unsavory guide to take her and her father on a dangerous quest to find an ivory-billed woodpecker that may or may not be extinct.  Their journey leads to horrific consequences.  Bergman shows that no matter how hard we try, we cannot tame nature.  Indeed, as the doctor finds out in “Saving Face,” there is an animal in every one of us.  Some of us hide it better than others do.  Bergman does not shy away from discussing the precarious state of our environment.  In our world, nature is in danger.  In a story called “2050,” Bergman takes us into the future.  The ocean is dying.  For one woman, her father’s whole life is the ocean and the life it sustains.  As the ocean declines, so does the woman’s father.  This is perhaps the most sobering of Bergman’s stories.  She gives us something to think about.

In Bergman’s stories, the bonds we have with animals and the connections they have with us shine.  Bergman is a wonderful new talent.  Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2012 and an Indie Next Pick for March.  Bergman does so well with her subject for a reason.  She lives in Vermont on a farm with her husband, a veterinarian, and their rescue animals.  If you love short stories or enjoy books about people and their animal companions, then this is a must-read for you.  I happen to think it is an excellent pick for spring.  Read it outside where you can listen to the birds singing.

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