On Clumsiness, and Balance

The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Publication: Traditional
Genre: Literary
Verdict: No

The House Girl is a dual story. One narrative takes place in 1852, and it’s about Josephine, a slave about to make a run for her freedom. The other is present-day, and concerns Lina, a young hotshot lawyer who, according to the back of the book, will soon be working on a Supreme Court case addressing reparations for the descendants of slaves.

I say it was on the back of the book, because on p. 34, the last page of the sample, I have yet to see this plotline introduced. Mostly what has happened to Lina is that a dude at her law firm dangled the case in front of her, but didn’t actually tell her what it was about. And then she went home and had a conversation with her dad.

If you can’t tell, I’m not too into Lina as yet. Which presents me with a bit of a dilemma when confronted by the Buy button, because I am into Josephine’s story. In a big way. It begins like this:

Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.

Josephine doesn’t really know why her master is pissed at her, just that he is, and that it’s his right to hit her. And the petty, casual cruelty of that moment rankles deeply, for her and for me.

Making your character the victim of an injustice is a quick and powerful way of putting the reader firmly on her side. And on her side I very much am. It also seems that Josephine’s story is quickly going to involve a lot of danger, drama, and emotional conflict (there are, after all, people on the plantation who she loves).

In other words, it’s going to make damn good reading.

Lina’s story hasn’t really kicked off yet. That may be a function of the length of the sample, but I think it also illustrates the difficulty of making a dual story like this work. Frequently when I read these I find myself drastically more committed to one narrative than the other; this unfortunately has the effect of making my B narrative a bit of a chore, a slog I have to get through to get back to the story I’m actually trying to read.

The only dual story I can think of that really worked for me was Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel, Maus, which dealt with the survival of the author’s Jewish father through the horrors of the Holocaust, and also with their strained relationship in the present day.

I think what made this one work was a deliberate imbalance between the stories. The Holocaust story was clearly the primary narrative, where most of the reader’s time would be spent. If you didn’t care much about this narrative, you knew to put down the book. And if you didn’t care much about the father-and-son narrative, at least you knew those sections would be brief. By clearly setting the reader’s expectations, Spiegelman removed the necessity of balancing the narratives perfectly.

Back to the House Girl. Conklin has set herself up for a really hard task, balance-wise, because it seems unlikely these stories are going to match in intensity. Josephine’s about to be running for her freedom, and her life. Lina’s about to be reading legal briefs. The book is marketed as literary, not thriller, so I’m just not optimistic that Lina is going to be dealing with stakes that match those of a runaway slave.

The only thing, then, that is drawing me into Lina’s narrative is the subject matter, slavery reparations. I don’t know much about the subject, and I’m interested to see it discussed in an intelligent, fair, and thorough manner.

But do I have faith that this will happen? Not really, and the reason why brings us back to that first sentence.

Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.

Clumsy, clumsy, clumsy! Why not just “hit?” Why not just “slapped?” Why include the detail about the left cheek at all? Why use thirteen words to do what three could do with more punch?

This inelegance is the sort of thing I could forgive in the middle of a book, but on p.1, it makes me leery. It speaks to a lack of effort on the behalf of both Conklin and her editor. And that translates to mashing Delete.

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