The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch
The recent death of Nelson Mendula has put Apartheid back in the news. The Housemaid’s Daughter is a fictional account of this turbulent time through the voice of one young and humble black girl whose story speaks volumes for the nation.
Barbara Mutch’s debut novel was inspired by her grandmother’s migration from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900’s to marry her grandfather after a five-year engagement. They settled in Cradock in the harsh Karoo desert. Unprepared for Cardock’s isolation and the issues of racial inequality, she befriended the household maid much to the neighbors’ disapproval.
Like Mutch’s grandmother, fictional Cathleen Harrington leaves her family in Ireland in 1919 to marry Edward. Isolated and estranged, her only companions are her diary, her housemaid and later the housemaid’s daughter, who is named Ada after Cathleen’s Irish sister.
Ada is born in 1930 under the bony shade of a thorn tree at the back of the big house and for her entire life feels the fabric of the place. It is the only home she has known.
In spite of having a son and daughter of her own, Cathleen bonds most closely to Ada, who is receptive to her love and her teachings. Under Cathleen’s tutelage Ada becomes an accomplished pianist. Ada discovers that musical notes are like words. They meant one thing when played on their own and quite another when strung together. Ada begins to see new possibilities for her life and her awareness of this is one of the most endearing parts of the book.
Ada in turn is the only one in the household who truly understands the inner Cathleen. In her zest to learn to read, she cannot resist reading Cathleen’s diary which she stumbles upon..
However Ada’s dreams of any bright future are shattered when she discovers she is pregnant. She knows the child will be mixed-race—a child who belongs nowhere in that time of history—so she flees the only home and love she has known rather than disgrace Cathleen’s family. Cathleen must decide if she will risk the constraints of apartheid to search for her.
The only thing that saves Ada and gives her any hope for a new life is her love and knowledge of music. She becomes a piano teacher in a township poverty community school across the Great Fish River. The geography of this beautiful region of South Africa is described vividly, both in it’s beauty and it’s harshness.
Once the child, Dawn, is born, Ada and Dawn are both ostracized there also. As she deals with adversity on many levels, Ada Mabuse becomes a powerful symbol for marginalized black women and a role model for those who face oppression anywhere in the world.
Cathleen and Ada’s love of music is a constant theme throughout the story. Music lovers will delight in the variety of music discussed and played. One of the most inspirational pieces in the story is Chopin’s Prelude no. 15. It opens with a deceptively simple melody that deepens to a stormy, complex heart before returning to the original theme. The repeating A-flat that echoes throughout reminds listeners of falling raindrops and the piece is often called the Raindrop Prelude. I think this pattern is also symbolic of Ada’s and Cathleen’s life journey, spanning five decades.
Some call Housemaid’s Daughter South Africa’s version of The Help. Good Housekeeping says, “The friendship at its center will leave your heart singing.”
I would agree and add that a singing heart is a great way to start a new year in books.