This story is told in two alternating narratives:
Josephine is a young slave girl (about 16 or so when the story begins) living on a Virginian plantation in 1852. She does not remember her parents, but was plucked from the slave cabins at a very young age by the mistress of the house to be her house servant, and has lived there since. When we meet Josephine she has just received abuse from her master, and decided on the spot that she will run away that evening. Through the course of the book we learn about her first attempt to run, when she was pregnant, her return to the plantation, and then her second flight from the plantation.
Lina is a lawyer living in present-day New York City. Still trying to make her mark at the prestigious law firm where she works, she is chosen for a case seeking slavery reparations. Specifically, she is charged with finding a sympathetic plaintiff - a proven descendent of slaves who can act as the "face" of the case. During the course of this search, she learns of the controversy surrounding a famous painter - a white woman living in pre-Civil War Virginia, who, as it turns out, may not have created the masterpieces attributed to her. Instead, there is a growing assumption that it was her slave, a girl named... Josephine.
Of course this is where the timelines merge, when Lina begins searching for a descendent of Josephine's. I found the Josephine storyline really compelling and powerful, beautifully written and told, with believable characters. The Lina timeline was less interesting to me, with characters and plotlines that felt a bit thrown together, and the coincidences that lead her to info about Josephine are pretty far-fetched. But it wasn't poorly written, just not as engaging.
I usually really like narratives with split-but-related timelines, and this was no exception. It reminded me of People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, which follows the path of one book and all the people that interact with it, and then in the present-day timeline follows people trying to uncover and dissect all of that history. House Girl is similarly divided, though not as expertly arranged.
Still, I think the way Conklin unfolds the story - giving clues as to what happened to Josephine in her own timeline, and the ways Lina is able to uncover them in hers - was impressive, especially for a debut novel! Very curious to read her subsequent books.
UP NEXT: The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling