Friday, 12 April 2013

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

About the book
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is a stand-alone novel. It was published on 14th March by Doubleday and the book is 400 pages long. Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review. (A stunning hardback copy too!)

Plot Synopsis
Set in 1791, orphaned on her journey to America, seven year old Lavinia becomes a new member of the Tall Oaks household. However, as Tall Oaks is a tobacco planation, she is forced to live and work with the slaves in the kitchen house, no matter the fact that she is white. Lavinia is put under the care of young Belle, the master of the house’s illegitimate daughter and soon becomes to love everyone in the kitchen house as her own family.

After a few years, Lavinia makes it into the big house where the mistress becomes an opium addict after several traumatic experiences. Lavinia soon realises just how different the two worlds are and has trouble separating the two. Torn between her family of slaves and the family running the plantation, Lavinia has to make a decision about her life but it is far from an easy one.

What I thought
This is not my usual kind of read but I’m trying to branch out a little more and try something new so when I got a review request for this one, I decided to give it a go. Instantly, I enjoyed the setting of the novel. Going back over 200 years in Virginia, the setting of the plantation of the people who lived and worked there was described beautifully.

The story is told through a dual narrative from Lavinia and Belle, a worker in the kitchen house. I have to say, that while I enjoyed both narratives, it was Lavinia’s which I enjoyed more. As a young, orphaned white girl, Lavinia doesn’t really understand her place in her new home. She’s more than ok with living with the slaves of the house and soon comes to think of them as family, using names such as Mama and Papa. Lavinia’s upbringing was certainly different to that of a typical white person during the times of the novel but she doesn’t think anything differently of it. Lavinia was a sweet but naive character, not knowing her place in the world. However, the novel follows her through to her 20s so we get to see her grow and develop a lot as a character.

Where we see Lavinia growing up, Belle gives a different perspective on the story. As she is older, she is able to give insight into the events covered throughout the novel. Being a slave and the illegitimate daughter of the house puts Belle in a somewhat awkward situation at times but through her narrative, we are able to understand why certain things happen, especially things that Lavinia either doesn’t know about or doesn’t understand. Over the course of the novel, Belle’s voice gets stronger and stronger and she became a character I liked more towards the end.

The Kitchen House provides a wonderful view of what life could have been like during times of slavery in America. Kathleen Grissom manages to make her novel exciting, heart-felt and heart-breaking all at the same time. As this novel spans roughly thirteen years, a lot does happen. At times, I felt there was too much going on but then it was necessary in order to show character development and the change in lifestyles. The lives of the slaves and the family running the planation are intertwined throughout the novel, which is how it becomes possible for so much to happen. Although it seems that white slave traders and owners were very racist against the slaves at times, there was a hell of a lot of sleeping around going on and so many secrets. I was somewhat shocked to realise that there was so much going on behind closed doors.

Secondary characters come more and more into play throughout the novel. Young Marshall, the son of the owners of the plantation, grows into a man and a tyrant too. He had a pretty rough kind of life himself and it wasn’t easy at all for him during his earlier years. The Kitchen House shows how he progresses into such a devil of a man towards the end. He was certainly a character to be hated but Grissom makes sure to explain all aspects of this character. During the middle of the novel, Lavinia and Marshall become quite good friends and she is able to see him as a loving and caring man. Unfortunately he does not stay this way though and becomes mean, aggressive and violent – not to mention selfish and rude.

Overall, this story about slavery and the relationships forged in such a time is a beautiful read and one which was utterly captivating. 

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