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Published: Friday March 29, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 24, 2013 MYT 2:12:36 PM

Friendship across racial divide

The story of an unexpected friendship that blossoms, and survives, despite seemingly impossible odds.

The Housemaid’s Daughter

Author: Barbara Mutch

Publisher: Headline Review, 401 pages

EVERY once in a while, you come across a book that grips you, that grabs you by the shoulders and the heart and keeps you engrossed until the very last page. This is what Barbara Mutch does with her debut novel, The Housemaid’s Daughter.

Narrated in the starkly honest and compelling voice of the titular character, African-American Ada, The Housemaid’s Daughter tells the story of two lives bound together by loyalty, friendship, music, and love.

In 1919, Cathleen Harrington travels from Ireland to South Africa to marry her fiancé, who she has not seen for five years. Estranged from her family and finding herself at odds with the harsh landscape of South Africa, Cathleen develops an unlikely friendship with Miriam the housemaid, and later, with Ada.

In Ada, Cathleen finds a kindred spirit, someone who not only understands her but also someone that she can understand and relate to in a way that she cannot with her own daughter and her disengaged husband.

And so, Cathleen educates Ada, and under her guidance, Ada blossoms into not just a highly literate individual, but an accomplished pianist as well.

Ada’s love and passion for music is chronicled throughout the novel, and in many instances, it is music that saves Ada during the bleakest periods of her life.

During the course of World War II, Cathleen’s son Phillip – who is close to Ada – joins to army, and returns injured and severely traumatised. It is Ada who nurses him through this dark time, and who offers him comfort.

Mutch doesn’t sugar coat the horrors of the war and nor does she attempt to soften the harshness of South African history.

The increasing racial prejudice that has been ever present in Ada’s life takes on a darker tone as she grows up. For example, a seemingly simple action, when Phillip hugs Ada goodbye at the train station, has poignant resonance because a white boy just didn’t do that in South Africa at that time. And that he does so in full view of everyone endears him to Ada more than ever.

The introduction of apartheid, the system of racial segregation enforced by South Africa’s National Party through legislation beginning in 1950, puts Ada and eventually the Harringtons in a potentially explosive political situation.

And when Ada is thrown in jail simply because she tries to help a friend, she unintentionally becomes a symbol of hope for the black community.

Mutch also draws attention to the position of mixed race people during this period. Not quite white and not quite black, these people were ostracized by both communities simply because they were different. Through Ada’s eyes, we learn how difficult life is for mixed-race people particularly children.

If there is one problem I have with this book, it is with the character of Cathleen Harrington.

For a character who plays such a central role in Ada’s life, she at times appears lacklustre and lost. Even her “secret conversations” with Ada did not forge a connection with me. This made it quite difficult to empathise with Cathleen even during her most vulnerable moments, which is a shame because so much of what Ada was and what Ada became can be attributed to the friendship and affection that Cathleen shows her.

Despite the one-dimensionality of her character, however, Cathleen’s love and affection for Ada and Miriam does come across as genuine, and Ada’s love and loyalty to “madam” does much to endear Cathleen to the reader.

Some have called The Housemaid’s Daughter the South African version of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009), which is about black maids in America’s segregated South and which is also set in the 1950s. Although there are similar issues discussed in the novels, they are not the same.

The Housemaid’s Daughter stands on its own as a story of loyalty, duty, love, and music. It is a story of a friendship that survives seemingly impossible odds. But most of all, it is a story of hope.

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle

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