Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: The Housemaid's Daughter

Summary: Barbara Mutch's stunning first novel tells a story of love and duty colliding on the arid plains of Apartheid-era South Africa

When Cathleen Harrington leaves her home in Ireland in 1919 to travel to South Africa, she knows that she does not love the man she is to marry there —her fiance Edward, whom she has not seen for five years. Isolated and estranged in a small town in the harsh Karoo desert, her only real companions are her diary and her housemaid, and later the housemaid's daughter, Ada. When Ada is born, Cathleen recognizes in her someone she can love and respond to in a way that she cannot with her own family.

Under Cathleen’s tutelage, Ada grows into an accomplished pianist and a reader who cannot resist turning the pages of the diary, discovering the secrets Cathleen sought to hide. As they grow closer, Ada sees new possibilities in front of her—a new horizon. But in one night, everything changes, and Cathleen comes home from a trip to find that Ada has disappeared, scorned by her own community. Cathleen must make a choice: should she conform to society, or search for the girl who has become closer to her than her own daughter?

Set against the backdrop of a beautiful, yet divided land, The Housemaid's Daughter is a startling and thought-provoking novel that intricately portrays the drama and heartbreak of two women who rise above cruelty to find love, hope, and redemption. -- St. Martin's Press

When I sat down to read THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER by Barbara Mutch in preparation for a blog tour, I had no idea how timely this read would end up being. THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER takes place in South Africa during Apartheid, and Nelson Mandela, who recently passed away, was referenced a few times for his work for the ANC.

THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER tells the story of Ada, the housemaid's daughter, and Cathleen, her employer. Cathleen, who was born in Ireland, arrived in the desert of South Africa to marry Edward, a man she never really loved. Despite having two children, Cathleen is lonely and eventually finds that she relates to Ada better than her own daughter.

Cathleen takes Ada under her wings and teaches her to read and play the piano. Ada's love of reading causes her to start reading Cathleen's diary and learning many of Cathleen's secrets. When Cathleen leaves home for a few months to visit her daughter, Ada unwillingly betrays her and mysteriously disappears. Cathleen desperately misses Ada and searches for her despite the social taboos associated with a wealthy white woman fraternizing with a black woman.

THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER is a beautiful story about a friendship between two women who have to overcome the odds. It demonstrates the power of love and forgiveness and ultimately redemption.

I enjoyed THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER quite a bit. It was a well-written novel with complex characters, and it managed to make me both think and feel. In addition, since it was historical fiction and took place during decades of the Apartheid, I felt as if I learned a few things about South Africa and its history. I definitely think Ms. Mutch did a great job of making these women's stories real while also making the setting of South Africa come to life.

One thing that really stood out to me about THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER was the writing. If I'm not mistaken, this is Ms. Mutch's first novel -- and I have to say that I was very impressed with how polished it was. I absolutely loved all of her descriptions of South Africa from the Karoo desert, to Cathleen's estate, to Johannesburg, to the mud huts that Ada lived in. She managed to make even the trees and animals real. My only wish is that she had given me more specifics about Apartheid, but that's because I don't really know much about it.

In addition, I loved how strong she made her female characters, namely Cathleen and Ada. These women who were born in such different circumstances and were divided by the color of their skin developed a love for each other that was so beautiful. Despite all of the impediments to their friendship, they managed to turn their back on society and support each other. Their courage and integrity were so admirable, and their actions were extremely heartwarming.

I've seen a comparison of THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER to THE HELP, and quite honestly, I don't know that it's a fair one. I guess there are some similarities of the master and servant relationships as well as friendship and race issues, but THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER is a quality book that stands on its own. It is rich with South African history and deals with some very serious issues, and it has a totally different feel to it than THE HELP.

THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER would make a fabulous book club selection. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a reader's guide on-line. I'm not sure that a book club would need formal questions because this novel is ripe with discussion points. Some of the themes you might want to explore include race, class, friendship, parent/child relationships, forgiveness, loyalty, duty, faith, loss, grief, courage, and redemption.

Overall, I found THE HOUSEMAID'S DAUGHTER to be a compelling read. It's an intriguing story that will also touch your heart and make you think. Highly recommended!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

Wow, this does sound like a timely book. It sounds like a beautiful story.

Anonymous said...

Sounds really good, Im South African so definitely going to read this. Nice review, thanks!

Beth F said...

So timely (sadly). This sounds like something I would like