Headline|October 23, 2012|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-7553-9210-0
A South African THE HELP, THE HOUSEMAID’S DAUGHTER is a startling and thought-provoking debut novel which intricately portrays the drama, dynamics and heartbreak of two women against the backdrop of a beautiful yet divided land.
Duty and love collide on the arid plains of central South Africa. Previously released as “Karoo Plainsong” this is a fully revised debut novel.
Cathleen Harrington leaves her home in Ireland in 1919 to travel to South Africa to marry the fiancé she has not seen for five years. Isolated and estranged in a harsh landscape, she finds solace in her diary and the friendship with the housemaid’s daughter, Ada. Cathleen recognizes in her someone she can love and responds to in a way that she cannot with her own husband and daughter. Under Cathleen’s tutelage, Ada grows into an accomplished pianist, and a reader who cannot resist turning the pages of the diary, discovering the secrets Cathleen sought to hide.
When Ada is compromised and finds she is expecting a mixed-race child, she flees her home, determined to spare Cathleen knowledge of her betrayal, and the disgrace that would descend upon the family. Scorned within her own community, Ada is forced to carve a life for herself, her child, and her music. But Cathleen still believes in Ada, and risks the constraints of apartheid to search for her and persuade her to return with her daughter. Beyond the cruelty, there is love, hope – and redemption.
Ada Mabuse was born in 1930 in Cradock House, located in a remote town on the very edge of the Karoo which is a desert area in South Africa. Her mother, Miriam does the housekeeping, polishing, laundry, and cooking for Cathleen Harrington and her rather stalwart husband, Edward.
Cathleen immigrated to South Africa from Ireland in 1919 to marry Edward after a five year separation. She wondered on the ship if Edward had changed in that amount of time especially when she met a man on board who caught her fancy. Years later she would wonder again about the seemingly lovely man she met on board during her immigration.
Ada only lived with her mother, Miriam at Cradock House and didn’t know who her father was. Despite the questions to her mother, Miriam, this was a subject not up for discussion. Miriam felt that some things were just better left unsaid.
Cathleen Harrington and her husband, Edward had two children: Miss Rose and Master Phil. Cathleen teaches music at the white school but Ada is banned from attending there due to her skin colour. Miss Rose had no interest whatsoever in learning how to play the piano so Cathleen instead teaches young Ada who becomes an accomplished pianist. Miss Rose was a surly, sour, and bossy young woman who was a huge disappointment to Cathleen as a daughter. She only had eyes for her father, Edward and bossed Ada around like she was her primary maid and servant. Ada always fulfilled the tasks asked of her by Miss Rose as she didn’t want to cause any problems for her mother, Miriam. Cathleen Harrington was very liberal minded and she and Miriam had a friendship that was certainly considered unusual/taboo for this period of time. Cathleen also taught a young Ada English which would serve her well throughout her life.
Ada and Master Phil who was also liberal minded like his mother, Cathleen had a friendly relationship. They played together from a very young age and Ada just absolutely idiolized Master Phil. As far as Cathleen and Phil are concerned, Ada is “part of” the “family” whereas she is treated only as a servant by Rose and her father, Edward.
As the years pass, Ada’s beloved mother, Miriam passes away. Ada is devastated at her loss and Cathleen hugs her much to Edward and Miss Rose’s utter disgust. The second time, Ada felt this “disgust” was the day Master Phil left home to fight in the war. At the train station, in plain view of his family and neighbours, Master Phil hugged Ada. She then realized there was a stark difference in the way black people and white people are perceived by others.
Once Miriam is gone, Ada takes over the complete household duties her mother once did. She cooked and ironed and polished the wood until it gleamed! At the end of each day, Ada would play the piano for Cathleen and Edward for hours. Music was what bonded Cathleen and Ada so tightly together.
Ada was pressured into an illegal sexual relationship which ends with the birth of her daughter, Dawn who has far, far lighter skin than Ada’s. Ada has no choice but to leave the Harrington home and the family she has come to love so dearly. She makes her way across the river trying to make money by taking in laundry and hauling it to the river each day to wash and dry by hanging the items from the tree branches and shrubs. She at first lives with her Auntie who is a very unkind and unsympathetic woman. Ada paid her to live in her small, cramped mud hut but her Aunt eventually tosses her out with the baby in tow. She makes a friend in Lindiwe who takes her in in exchange for learning to read English. Lindiwe’s mud hut is even smaller and more cramped than her Auntie’s was but they make do.
One day, Ada learns that a school close-by has a piano but no music lessons are offered there. Ada summons her courage, straps Dawn to her back and walks into the school to confront the principal, Mr. Dumise about a job playing the piano and teaching music to the students. Mr. Dumise had another teacher in his office at the time and he was totally disgusted with Ada due to the colour of Dawn’s skin – he knew she had sinned. Ada was getting used to losing friends and neighbours once they saw the colour of Dawn’s skin. Although upset, she wasn’t surprised. Mr. Dumise took a chance on Ada after listening to her play the piano. He was, in fact, totally taken aback at Ada’s talent and hired her. Ada’s new job completely changes her life.
Barbara Mutch has written an irresistible book that is extremely difficult to put down. There was so much more I wanted to say in my review but that would have had to include spoilers and I couldn’t do that to you. You simply have to read this breathtaking novel.
Although the book is fiction, the Karoo does exist and apart from recognized historical figures, the characters are a product of the author’s imagination. However, the places they inhabit are very real.
The story is educational, helps us understand apartheid, showed the liberal thinking of some of the people of this time period, it is thought-provoking, an epic journey of an uncertain love and an enduring friendship.
I loved so many of the characters in this novel, especially Cathleen, Dawn, Phil, Lindiwe, Miriam, and of course, sweet Ada.
This is my fourth “favourite novel” I’ve read this year out of the 182 books I’ve read so far. When word gets out, Barbara Mutch’s novel The Housemaid’s Daughter is going to be a huge hit. Very, very well-done!!