In racially divided South Africa, a white woman and her housemaid’s daughter risk their lives and those of everyone around them when they forge a lifelong friendship.
What it’s about: This decades-long saga begins in 1919, when Cathleen Harrington sets sail from Ireland for South Africa to reunite with her fiancé, Edward. They’ve been apart for five years, Cathleen feels she barely knows him, and getting married doesn’t improve matters. She endures years of loneliness, despite having two children. Eventually she strikes up a friendship with Ada, her housemaid’s daughter. But when Ada gives birth to a mixed-race child just as apartheid laws come into force in the late 1940s, she faces a difficult sacrifice.
The Inspiration: Barbara Mutch was motivated by her grandparents’ move from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900s. “Their journey is the starting point for the novel,” she says. “But what happens to Ada, Cathleen and their families is a product of my imagination.” Mutch admits a particular challenge was finding Ada’s voice and writing from the point of view of
a black South African woman. “I didn’t know if I could do Ada justice. I had not lived a life such as hers or survived alienation like she had. People find it hard to look back; the past still has the ability to wound. I wanted to write a book that reflected South Africa’s brilliance and its shadows, but in a way that was sensitive. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that, but I hope so.”
Why we loved it: Ada is a compelling character to follow as she grows from young girl to older woman against the backdrop of a changing political scene. Her sheltered upbringing means she has a naïveté that endears her to us “but also makes us fear for her when she challenges the status quo,” as Mutch says. Cathleen’s yearning for a close connection, something she doesn’t form with her own wayward daughter, leads her to miscalculate the consequences of her relationship with Ada. “We have allowed the creation of a divided country,” Cathleen says. “And [our house] lies along its fault lines.”
Talking points: Apartheid, race, friendship, family, politics, history.
The Housemaid’s Daughter, Barbara Mutch, $16.