Book Club discussion: The Housemaid's Daughter by Barbara Mutch

Alex, Lora and I are consumed by this multigenerational saga set in South Africa about the friendship between a white woman and the daughter of her black housemaid and the effects that relationship has on their families for decades to come

The Housemaid's Daughter book cover

Laurie: So, The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch. Alex said yesterday it was making her cry. Why, Alex?
Alex: A two-pronged answer for you, Laurie: 1) There is such a poignancy to Mutch’s writing and it feels simple, which perfectly echoes the tragic naiveté of Ada’s character, and 2) Ada’s life takes so many cripplingly sad turns, yet she battles bravely. So I think the combination of those things hits pretty hard.
Laurie: I think Mutch will be pleased with your answer. She says in the interview I did with her that Ada is naïve because of the circumstances she grows up in. She’s essentially isolated. She grows up alone, not exposed to other children like herself and has no sense of her world really. It makes her an innocent, and as such she is vulnerable.
Lora: I never even thought of it that way—the isolation from other children—but it’s so true. She’s innocent in such a pure way.
Alex: Yes, and vulnerable in a very different way from those outside Cradock House.
Laurie: Most definitely. She has no sense of the world outside and therefore how to protect herself from it. Or how to protect herself from the world within. Though it also makes her brave.
Alex: And the very world that’s supposed to give her comfort, that she’s so incredibly drawn to, ends up testing her the most.
Lora: The world within Cradock House is just as dangerous in terms of how it’s seen by those outside.
Alex: Mutch does an excellent job of making you see that learning comes from all struggle. That we must see challenges as an opportunity to shine. And Ada is such a source of strength and hope. It’s so sad to watch, though.
Laurie: It is. But so wonderful to see the connections that are made, the friendships that are formed. How people can be similar and how they can come together even though there are no actual familial connections. For example, Ada’s aunt isn’t much help to her, yet Ada has that wonderful friendship with Lindewe.
Alex: Oh, absolutely. That’s one of my favourite themes: chosen family — and all the controversy that brings with it.?
Lora: Mine, too. Especially when it came to Ada’s relationship with Catherine (obviously) and with Phillip. I loved him!?
Alex:  I know. I just adored him. And those encounters were so delicately explored. And there is something about Mutch’s writing that’s reminiscent of music, or the rhythm of African dialects—she repeats certain phrases until they become like idioms. I think there’s a way of speaking that’s associated with more verbal languages: repetition of details, almost becoming catchphrases. It’s how we make anecdotes with friends today, too, but in this book I found the details Ada repeated gave me context and made the material seem familiar.
Laurie: What you say about rhythm is important, since music plays such an important role in this book: it’s what binds Catherine and Ada, and what serves as a way for Ada to earn her living when she has to leave Cradock House. It runs through the whole book. It’s what Rosemary rejects, too, and in doing so rejects Catherine in essence.
Alex: Fascinating. And Dawn has her own very different appreciation of music.
Laurie: In many ways, she is the African embodiment of it.
Lora: The musical component helped me relate to the story as well, possibly because music is so strong in my own family. It was such a beautiful thread that wove them all together.
Laurie: There’s that amazing scene when Dawn goes to the school and dances!?
Alex: I LOVED THAT SCENE! I wanted to be Dawn. She is such an interesting mix of them all. I had no idea of the struggles for mixed race families—being rejected by both sides. I know that makes me sound really naïve, but this book felt educational, too.
Laurie: Me, neither. The whole idea of “coloureds” and their lower status. Crazy. To categorize people so minutely—although I know that happened in the States.
Lora: Dawn broke my heart. From the moment Ada realized she was pregnant, I had this heavy feeling for Dawn and her future. I grew up with a lot of friends from mixed-race backgrounds. Even today, it’s tough to figure out where you belong.
Alex: That’s language that existed in my mum’s small town in South Wales. Identity is a tricky thing. One of the hardest parts of adolescence.
Laurie: And yet, I’ve seen small children play and they don’t seem to have any sense of colour.
Lora: No, they don’t.
Alex: Absolutely.
Lora: It’s the cruelty of adults that intervenes with those awful ideals.
Alex: And seeing Dawn ignore those confines of society reminded everyone else of what they have just accepted, which would suggest she should remain lonely and isolated.
Laurie: Yes, and somewhere else Ada, I think, worries about Dawn trying to fit in with white people. No matter what she does, Dawn can’t win.
Alex: The thing is, all of those adults, whites and blacks, are lonely.
Laurie: Which is what makes trying to keep anyone apart from anyone else for such reasons so crazy.
Alex: Exactly. Inside each of them is a giant chasm of loneliness, and they’re exacerbating it with segregation. Getting pregnant outside wedlock was the worst-case scenario in people’s eyes, but it is the only thing that temporarily relieves the loneliness, despite bringing with it all kinds of other responsibilities.
Laurie: That’s the common theme: loneliness. They’re all lonely. Even Edward in his warped way.
Lora: I think Edward is especially lonely, actually. And poor Phillip trying to find comfort, and the one person who does comfort him is looked down upon for it.
Laurie: And for who she is in the first place, by Edward anyway.
Alex: Philip is like his mother: ready to see past the social parameters others have set. He was revolutionary in his own way.
Laurie: If Ada and Philip could have been together, it would have been perfect, but it was not to be. In the end, though, without giving things away, maybe in the new day and age, there is hope for the next generations.
Alex: Absolutely. I loved the way the two families became intertwined again.
Laurie: Yes, that was lovely. There was something else interesting I forgot to mention earlier, something similar that is happening in society again today: a lack of fathers. Even Edward in many ways is an absentee father.
Alex: He totally was. I didn’t get much from him as a reader, and I’m pretty sure that’s how Mutch wanted it to feel. Bastard!?
Laurie: Even across the river, it was all women. There were some good men in the school, but mostly, men were fighters.
Alex: The men were always a threat. Spilling from bars, attacking women or fighting. Except for the school and Philip. I have to say I loved how the stories came back together. It made me picture a tree whose branches spread our and wind back into each other.
Lora: Me, too. I’m glad Mutch chose the timeline she did. To have it cover so many years and to see Ada’s story come full circle was more fulfilling than if she’d just focused on her childhood or adulthood alone.
Alex: I LOVE multigenerational stories. Seeing the similarities and differences from one to the next.
Laurie: And the effect of one’s actions across generations.
Alex: I’m obsessed with it! And the language and pacing of it matched the story perfectly.
Laurie: Well, ladies, thank you for your thoughts. Next month, we’ll be talking about the riveting thriller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Until then!