Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Housemaid's Daughter.
In The Housemaid's Daughter, Barbara Mutch crafts a history of apartheid as seen through the eyes of her heroine. Ada grows up in Cradock House in the safe of harbor of her Master and Madam, Cathleen and Edward Harrington, and at the bosom of her kindly mother, Miriam, who has spent much of her life working as maid for the Harringtons. Ada knows without a doubt that Cradock belongs to her as she spends her childhood looking out over the brown shadows of the Groot Vis and the dust devils twisting into the sky above the stunted veldt.
Cathleen feels this same way about a place from across the sea—her home country of Ireland—and she constantly looks for something behind the blue gums of the Groot Vis and the brown dust that hangs over the market square. From the first atmospheric pages, Mutch spends much capital on setting up Ada and Cathleen’s provocative scenario, exploring the internal dynamics between black and white in pre-apartheid Africa. Skin difference is “not a matter of law,” and seduction and the motives of a lonely man happen behind closed doors.
While famous figures such as Nelson Mandela have already given us much knowledge on the terrible “war on skin” that encompassed much of South Africa, Mutch chooses instead to focus on Dawn, Ada’s biracial child, who grows up having no clue who her father is and whose tentative, hard-fought steps to go out into this world symbolize a fragile hope for a new kind of future. Dawn’s eyes are as light as Master Phil, Cathleen’s beloved elder son who returns from the war in North Africa a broken and damaged man and falls in love with Ada at a time when such relationships will soon become illegal.
In a stare that never wavers from her mother, Ada can see the conflicting sides of her beloved Dawn: “the biddable girl at Cradock House and the wild girl of the township.” Through her fierce force of will, rebellious Dawn will have a desire to prove herself, “to be more black than she was, to be part of the inferno,” to finally contribute to the liberation, struggle, revolution and war that quickly engulfs them all.
Using a straightforward prose style and incorporating lyrical phrases into Ada’s first-person narration, Mutch suggests Ada’s sharply observant mind and the keen sense of doom that eventually spirals inside her with treacherous repercussions. Ada’s sense of doing her “duty” to the Harringtons finally brings on the ultimate betrayal, which in turn forms the core of the narrative and shapes the futures of young, innocent Dawn, tall, gentle Cathleen, and her daughter, jealous Miss Rosemary, who from the outset, resents Ada’s musical gifts.
As the story reaches its climax, Mutch relies on the eyes of Ada to shepherd her view of war and retribution, The strange beauty of the desert is counterbalanced by the harsh living conditions of the black population who live just across the river from the privileged Cradock House but may as well exist in a different universe. Mutch makes no excuses for showing how the hunger and casual cruelty by the white population is perpetuated by “suffocation by rules and by gradual creeping death.” The reader, meanwhile shares all of Ada’s hopeful thoughts for Dawn: “I am free—but afraid of lifting my head after years of seeking the shadows.”
Music is important in the novel. The works of Chopin are a lovely symbol of the lifelong bond between Cathleen and Ada, who seem to carry the sentences of love inside themselves. Music also serves as Ada’s “special joy” and becomes a panacea to the constant degradation, humiliation, and fear she will be prosecuted for an “illegal” relationship.” Although I became a bit bored novel’s end, I admire Mutch’s ability to meld together the Harringtons’ disparate interests, all torn asunder by racism. Readers will no doubt enjoy being drawn deeper into the emotional morass of the troubled Ada and Dawn, while the powerful, heartbreaking climax will leave everyone yearning for better and happier times.