In One Word

In One Word, The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee is…

downstairs girl

  • Published in 2019 by Putnam
  • Format: Paperback – Published by Piatkus
  • Reading Time: 8 engaging days


  • Coming near the end of my Summer Reading Challenge 2020 so it’s a race against time to get everything read and reviewed before the 22nd! This one was a challenge to read something set in the past and this is set in Atlanta in 1890. The Jim Crow laws are creeping in like an infestation of rats and, for Jo Kuan, the orphaned daughter of Chinese immigrants, the outlook is bleak. Recently dismissed on nonsensical grounds from a milliner’s shop, she’s forced to return to work as a ladies’ maid for the terrible Caroline Payne. In an effort to keep her home (but not in the conventional way), she turns to writing daring advice in a local newspaper. She may be able to speak her mind through writing but can she dare to step into the limelight in person when the time comes?
  • Original take on the time period. This might be the first historical novel written from the POV of a Chinese-American in the time period I’ve read and it’s certainly a good place to start if you haven’t either.
  • Marvellous writing style that certainly sounds like it came from the Deep South. I’m rather sorry I didn’t get the audiobook version as I’m sure it would have sounded wonderful. As it is, though, the style is brilliant to read, full of creative similes and flowing like the Chattahoochee river.
  • Pushes away from an overly dark tone. While it does mention lynching and moral outrages motivated by racism, it never delves into the darkest aspects of the time period. You’re in no doubt that it’s there but the book keeps its distance from it, keeping the tone light and easier to read.
  • Excellent attention to historical detail. The author admits in the author’s note that she took a few liberties with the timeline but, other than that, everything else rings true. I knew about the Chinese Exclusion Act but this provides much more detail how Chinese labourers were treated post-Civil War. Spoiler alert: they weren’t treated much better than the former black slaves in the city. It also shed an unflattering light not just on the criminal underworld of Atlanta but on the racism displayed in the suffragist movement at the time. Both are equally unpleasant to witness.
  • Love Jo and her growth throughout the novel from downtrodden, underappreciated maid to confident secret journalist. Even before she picked up a pen, we can see she had it in her to be someone special. She has a tendency to speak her mind which, in her initial circumstances, worked against her but she also knew how to use information to her advantage and there were quite a few satisfying scenes of her using her wits to best her opponents. The other characters get a good amount of development too, even Caroline.
  • Loved the answers to Miss Sweetie letters at the start of every other chapter. They are perfectly spread out through the novel and provided a lot of humour. The first one nearly made me laugh out loud. I’m honestly not sure such language would be allowed in an 1890 newspaper but I’m suspending my disbelief because it was so funny. Putting them at the start of the chapters was a good narrative strategy too because the ones that ended up being important to the plot were well-sown in advance. There was no need to clumsily insert them in the narrative and give the game away too early.
  • I was not expected the novel to take a turn that way. The hints were very well hidden indeed. So well hidden that I think I might have to re-read it just to pick them up. The secret of Jo’s family was a persistent undercurrent but it never bogged down the story until the big reveal. Jo had bigger things to worry about, after all.
  • Now, that was a tense, action-packed climax. The race was well built up throughout the book and, when the day came, the tension was masterfully built up to a fever pitch. I really felt like acting like a crowd at a race, jumping up and down, cheering them on.
  • Great happy ending that resisted the urge to become fairy-tale. Racists don’t change their minds that easily, after all, but it’s clear that the seeds of change have been sown in this version of Atlanta.

Goodreads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Did you agree with my rating? Can you think of a better word to describe it? Please let me know with a like, share or comment.

4 thoughts on “In One Word, The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee is…”

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