Set in South Africa in the 1950s, Freed’s small but passionate novel circles around the lives of a Jewish family while the ghosts of World War II and the Holocaust continue to haunt them. Although sometimes melancholy and sad, The Servants' Quarters is mostly filled with quirky characters
in a narrative that often crackles with wry dialogue and with a great deal of humor.
We first meet Cressida, Freed’s young protagonist, when she’s only nine. The author paints her as a resourceful, questioning girl who must do battle with her facile social-climbing mother, her bedridden father, and the long-festering emotional problems up on the hill in Harding’s Rest, a grand manor presided over by officious George Harding, an ex-pilot who was badly disfigured in the
war and is said to be mad.
Cressida is absolutely terrified at the thought of going to the house and having to live in the “servants’ quarters.” Unfortunately, though, Cressida, her mother, Muriel, and her sister, Miranda, have little choice. The family have recently hit upon hard times because of an accident involving Cressida’s father, who now lies in his bedroom in a coma and is looked after Phineas, the local Zulu housekeeper and caretaker.
Saddled with a white elephant and forced to live within their means for a change - and when the only alternative is a cheap little flat on the beachfront - all three are fully aware they must move. But as the family settle themselves into the servants’ quarters, George Harding proves to be anything but nice.
At first Cressida is terrified of him, with his hat and veil and his one squinting eye as he “sucks his lips hideously.” But clearly George Harding is ready to handle Cressida, even enchanted by her and ready to take her on as his muse. One day, she
is ceremoniously summoned to his study and told there will be a boy about her age coming to live at Harding's Rest: George’s nephew, Edgar Harding.
Told to make allowances for Edgar, George sets her on a mission to make Edgar wild and daring
- “wipe him clean of the past! Burn it out of him!” A request made more serious when she discovers she will be remunerated for her efforts. Glad to be liberated from a family marred by secrets and betrayal on both sides, Cressida is strangely drawn to George and his family as she searches for some sort of meaning in her past and her present alike.
Eventually Cressida learns some hard-won lessons when her connections to the Harding family are gradually unveiled. Apparently there was battle with George’s brother, Charles; a fight on the golf course; then the devastating consequences of Muriel’s affair with the mysterious Charles, who ran off to war after horribly bashing Cressida’s father.
Meanwhile, a full cast of characters complement Cressida’s life: Aunt Bunch, old fat and ugly; mad old Mrs. Harding “with her head pulled back into a bun and long drooping ears,” who gets Cressida to read
The Forsyth Saga to her while she eats; Mrs. Arbuthnot, “the stupid old cow“ of a housekeeper; and later Mr. Ledson, “a dreadful vulgar little man” who suddenly turns into a breath of fresh air for the ever spurious Muriel.
Reminiscent of Stella Gibbons’ 1932 comic novel Cold Comfort Farm, The Servants' Quarters
contains some of the same elements of parody, and there are parallels to Gibbons’ romanticized, sometimes doom-laden accounts of everyday life. Cressida has her fair share of problems, and there’s a sort of competitiveness that goes on and on with her mother, while Edgar slides around the edges of her life “like a tall, thin shadow.” Throughout, Freed’s endearing protagonist is able to rise above Muriel’s endless anger and become a woman in her own right, ultimately inspired by George, her strange, embittered, battle-weary benefactor.