The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch
Homesick Cathleen strikes up a friendship with Miriam, the black, South African housemaid at Cradock House. Edward and Cathleen have two children, Phil and Rosemary, but with Phil away at school and Rosemary uninterested in anything her mother suggests, Cathleen is drawn to Miriam’s daughter Ada.
Edward is against treating the household staff as equals, but Cathleen truly struggles with the racial divide created by Apartheid. Against her husband’s wishes, Cathleen begins to teach Ada to read and write and they form a mother-daughter bond over a shared love for music.
Ada greatly admires Cathleen for the life changing skills she teaches her and is fiercely attached to Cradock House. When Ada suddenly disappears, Cathleen is at a loss to understand why. With stricter laws on the rise and violence erupting daily, Cathleen has every reason to be worried about Ada.
This debut novel spans several decades of Apartheid-era South Africa, and explores the social conditions of the time. While the focus of the novel is clearly Ada’s life, I felt a bit cheated by the brief details devoted to the Harrington family relationships in general, but more specifically Phil and then later Ada’s daughter Dawn. It is a small criticism, because overall I really enjoyed this read and Ada’s storytelling voice. With Ada, Mutch has created a character that stays on your mind long after you reach the end of her story. I will be watching for future novels from this author.
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