Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Housemaid's Daughter.
A tempting title promises either fascination or disappointment. The setting is exotic, from 1919 Ireland to mid-1900 South Africa and its history of systemic apartheid. Cathleen Harrington leaves her Irish home to wed Edward in South Africa, embarking on a marriage and a life completely foreign to her upbringing. Isolated from family and estranged by circumstances, she settles into Cradock House in the harsh Karoo desert. She tells her secrets to her diary, her closest companions her maid, Miriam, and Miriam’s daughter, Ada. And while Catherine and her private diaries are the original focus of the story, she becomes a secondary character to the voice of the narrator, Ada.
Though Catherine’s marriage lacks passion, she is a devoted mother to gentle Phil and his younger sister, Rosemary, a cantankerous child with a selfish nature. Finding hours of refuge in the piano that Edward has thoughtfully provided in their home, Catherine is thrilled by little Ada’s interest in the music, eventually taking the girl under her wing when Rosemary goes off to school. Ada proves to be a gifted pianist as well as an eager student of letters.
Though she is never certain if Catherine is aware of her actions, Ada secretly reads the daily diary of the lonely woman she has grown to idolize. War brings a dark cloud into the household, a tragedy that befalls the sensitive Phil, who suffers greatly for his experiences. Seeking only to comfort a grieving master, Ada is burdened with a guilt she does not deserve, forced to leave the security of Cradock House for a world where her shame—an infant daughter—is met with hostility.
The piano and the healing nature of its music serves as a fulcrum between the lives of mistress and servant, but the real dynamic revolves around race and a burden of inequality borne by a young woman steeped in the culture of subservience, where pleasing “masters” is integral to daily existence. Cradock House is the only home Ada has ever known, her values, expectations and self-esteem drawn from the years when her mother worked diligently for those who provided room and board, their values seen as the epitome of acculturation. Ada knows little of her country’s struggle, at least until she seeks a place among those who would offer safety and comfort to her and her baby daughter, Dawn. Meanwhile, the seething cauldron of racial injustice erupts in scenes of brutality and violence throughout the country.
As her life changes with her small daughter, Ada awakens to the realities of her generation in South Africa, political awareness coming late, but a cause for which she has great sympathy. Teaching music in a school, Ada realizes that her ties to Cradock House—and to Mrs. Cath—are unbreakable, unable to truly detach from either master or mistress, a dark-skinned woman torn between two worlds.
Like The Help, The Housemaid's Daughter is not written by a woman of color, the author imagining the thoughts and deeds of a protagonist whose real feelings are unknowable absent the mitigating qualification. Mutch is really unable to tap into the rich inner life or cultural experiences of those outside Cradock House, the true horrors of apartheid, revolution, the bloody violence that tore South Africa apart before resolution was finally brokered. (Mutch’s descriptions are painful to read, albeit from Ada’s perspective, far too simplistic, distanced by an awkwardness of language and a ladylike distaste for violence.)
Instead, the reader is offered the saga of sweet, long-suffering Ada, bred to servant-hood and the love of her “masters.” Their culture dominates her every response to life’s challenges, any rebellious spirit stanched by duty and overweening responsibility (even after Mrs. Cath’s death) and the closing of the home where Ada finds her security and love of music. Though the doors are locked against her, Ada clings to a cobwebbed house filled with ghosts of the past, the strains of music long out of key. Sad. And offensive.