Genre: Historical Fiction
Review in a word: Powerful
Opening line: “I wasn’t supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.”
The Housemaid’s Daughter tells the life of Ada, a maid in Cradock House, in a town near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Her mistress, Cathleen, is a mother figure to her, and Ada grows up as part of the family, especially after her own mother dies. Because Ada is not allowed into the school where Cathleen teaches, Cathleen teaches Ada at home. She learns to read, write, and—most importantly—to play the piano. In fact, Ada is somewhat of a prodigy.
When Ada is about seventeen, Cathleen (“Madam” to Ada) leaves the house for a while to visit her daughter in the city. During this time, Cathleen’s husband, Ada’s Master, comes to Ada several times and she becomes pregnant with his child. Ada feels incredibly guilty, but she doesn’t want to hurt either Madam or Master, so she runs away. For a few years Ada is able to hide with her coloured daughter, Dawn. She is shunned by both the black community and the white community for her daughter’s skin, but she finds a place teaching music at a local school.
Eventually, Madam finds Ada and persuades her to return to live with them in Cradock House. But by this time during apartheid, it is illegal for a white person to have sex with a black person. Dawn is the spitting image of her father, so Ada and Dawn’s presence in Cradock House poses a definite threat to all of their safety. As Dawn grows older and Ada watches her daughter struggle to fit in, she is more conflicted about apartheid. Should she try to lay low, keep her head down, and stay safe? Or is there a way to join with those who are fighting against apartheid? And can she put her beloved Madam at risk?
The cover and title of the book really don’t do it justice. Cover 3 is the one on my book, and I have no idea why a young white woman is pictured. I guess it’s supposed to be Cathleen, but Cathleen is already at least middle-aged when the story begins. And “The Housemaid’s Daughter” is a terrible title. One of the themes throughout the book is inheritance: not just the goods that are handed down to you, but also your biological makeup. Several times Ada discusses “the inheritance of skin,” and I think that would’ve been a much better title. Because of the lackluster title and cover, I really didn’t have very high expectations going in, so I was surprised by the power of this book.
Ada’s life spans almost the entire period of apartheid. There is so much turmoil around her, but Ada is quiet, reserved, and dutiful. She is mistreated by nearly everyone when Dawn is born, but she never retaliates. She pours herself into her music, her favorite piece being Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude (below). She truly is an inspirational character, always peaceful and seeking to stop others from violence. She just wants to protect herself and her family, but eventually she realizes that as long as apartheid exists, her family will never be safe.
Ada’s other struggle, of course, is her guilt over sleeping with her Master. She feels guilty because he didn’t physically force her, but really—how could she have said no to the man who provided for her so generously and allowed her to be educated with his own children and paid for the burial of her mother?
Every woman always has the right to say no, but we don’t always know it. Ada learns this the hard way.
It’s not easy for Ada to come live in Cradock House again. Obviously, she’s afraid her Master will ask her to have sex again. But he doesn’t, and she soon feels compassion for him, because he’s so obviously tortured by his mistakes. Both Cathleen and Ada have a deep and real faith in God that compels them to treat him with kindness, though he betrayed them both.
Ada and Cathleen are beautiful characters who pour love into their community and stand by each other when everyone else abandons them. This book was the epitome of what I love to read. And as a pianist myself, all of the discussion about the power of music and the beauty of the piano was an added bonus.
You can read more about the setting, the characters, and Mutch’s inspiration for the book on her website.
I hadn’t realised that the piano did more than train your fingers. I hadn’t realised it could show me a world beyond Cradock House. The first time my fingers touched the ivory keys, I knew music would lift my heart, but I didn’t expect it to stretch my head as well.
What I did—how can it be both right and wrong?
Why didn’t I say no the first time? Why did I believe that duty was my only option? Even though duty and loyalty are often on opposite sides, it does not mean that one has to be sacrificed for the other. And if my duty and loyalty had been to God the Father—as it should have been—then I would not have had to make such a sacrifice, I would not have had to choose between Master and Madam. I could have chosen God’s way instead, and He would have told me to say no. Yet even without God’s way, why did it take such time and pain for me to learn that I had the right to say no for myself as well?
Perhaps this is His way with me. To speak to me not directly, but through those I love.
Recommend? Go read this now!
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