24th Sep 2012
The Housemaid’s Daugher by Barbara Mutch
She is soon assimilated into the white community, but can never come to terms with the skin colour divisions that permeate the town, and accepts her housemaid Miriam and her child Ada as part of her household and her family. In this, however, she is alone – both in in her community and her family.
Fortunate in the kindness shown to her by her white Madam, but cursed by the actions of her white Master, Ada finds herself swinging from a sheltered position as a member of the family for whom she is the housemaid, to a symbol of the hope of revolution for her black township – while all the time simply trying to care for those whom she loves.
Revealing new angles to a story of which we are all aware, but may struggle to truly understand, this is a bright and vividly written novel, easy to read and absorb.
A cast of strong female characters who band together to make the best of their lives, despite being occasionally let down by those who have inherited prejudice. Mutch draws her characters well, although they sometimes veer towards stereotypes.
Language is a powerful theme in the novel, as Ada negotiates the English language via her well-worn dictionary, and Mutch uses snippets from Cath’s diary – the outlet for her thoughts – to show the reader and Ada (in unseen moments) the loneliness and concerns of a woman in such an apparently privileged position.
With such weighty issues at its heart, the novel can sometimes suffer from a lack of clarity, with characters appearing and returning from their faraway hide outs where lives have been continuing, as and when needed to move the plot forward.
Despite a somewhat abrupt ending, where ‘hope’ solves all, Barbara Mutch’s sensitive handling of her characters and the society in which they operate ensures that all threads are brought together, from Johannesburg to Cradock, from Ada Mabuse to Nelson Mandela, from Ireland to South Africa.
Recommended for: Fans of vivid imagery and sensitive soul-searching; anyone interested in 20th-century South Africa and the history of apartheid.