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“The Housemaid’s Daughter,” the debut novel by Barbara Mutch, is the poignant story of Cathleen Harrington, who in 1919 travels to South Africa to marry her fiancé, Edward, whom she had not seen in five years and no longer loves. The author says the this novel is a fictional account of her grandmother’s journey from Ireland to South Africa.
Cathleen’s worry that she and Edward will have nothing to say to each other comes true. Her new home is isolated in the semi-arid region of Karo, in the remote town of Cradock.
As a young bride, she feels isolated, and she observes the racial inequality surrounding her. Her only friends are her housemaid, Miriam, and Miriam’s daughter, Ada Mabuse, named after Cathleen’s sister. Cathleen, an accomplished pianist, is impressed by Ada’s intelligence and teaches her to read, write and play the piano. She discovers that Ada is a talented musician, and the love of music bonds them.
While cleaning one day, Ada chances upon Cathleen’s diary and comes to know something of Cathleen’s inner life. Edward, Cathleen’s unemotional husband, is a banker and part of the entrenched white power structure. They have two children, Rose and Phil.
Called to war, Phil returns home physically and emotionally wounded.
Rose is headstrong and difficult, and mother and daughter are not close. Cathleen finds in Ada the daughter she had dreamed of, in part because of their love of the piano.
Ada comes of age just as apartheid becomes the law. The story follows Ada’s life through apartheid and the struggle for liberation.
She is torn between the two communities. She loves Cradock House and her mistress. But the new laws mean she can no longer live within the main house or sit on the white only benches or even walk in the front door of the doctor’s office even if she is there on behalf of her mistress.
Cathleen, too, is unhappy with the new rules. But it seems at first that there is nothing either of them can do to change them. But when Cathleen comes home from a trip to Johannesburg, she discovers that something happens that sends Ada fleeing from the white household to the black township.
Cathleen feels that Ada has become part of her family and that she must find her. Ms. Mutch writes, “Memories never fade, they simply hide, only to emerge greater in number and intensity, and fresh as when I first made them.”
Family members can die or move away but they cannot vanish from the heart.