The latest novel by Stacey Lee, The Downstairs Girl is set in Atlanta in 1890. Jo is a seventeen-year-old Chinese American girl living with her guardian Old Gin in an abandoned abolitionists’ hideaway beneath a print shop. When Jo loses her job in a hat shop, she’s forced to work for her previous employer, for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the area. Taking matters into her own hands, Jo decides to take out her frustration on the inequalities in society by penning a newspaper advice column under the pseudonym ‘Miss Sweetie’. To her surprise the column takes off and soon the usually private Jo has to deal with Miss Sweetie becoming the most talked about column in town, while discovering some secrets from her past along the way.
The Downstairs Girl is a compelling and honest look at society of the time and its treatment of minority groups. Despite it being set over a century ago, there are still parallels between 19th century America and today and it’s interesting to learn more about what life was like at the time.
After a slow start where a lot of background information is given, Jo’s world soon comes to life and readers are sure to be engrossed. Stacey Lee has packed a lot into the book and its clear that a lot of research has been carried out into the America of that time with segregation rules and the rise of the suffragette movement. Where Lee particularly excels is in her characterisation, notably of Jo, a strong, fearless young woman who’s certainly isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She’s also been dealt a tough blow in life, and it’s impossible not to root for her. It’s refreshing to read historical fiction where the women aren’t all interested in conforming to societal norms, with Jo not interested in finding a husband and settling down.
Though there are one or two plot points which are too convenient, The Downstairs Girl is a heartfelt and absorbing read packed full of unexpected twists and turns. It may be the first of Stacey Lee’s books that I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last!
The Downstairs Girl is published on 13 August by Little, Brown Book Group UK