The blurb for this book indicates the story is about an Irish woman, Cathleen Harrington, who emigrates to South Africa to marry a man she doesn’t love. Disappointed with her life and unable to connect with her own children, Cathleen becomes attached to Ada, the daughter of her housemaid, who is intelligent and incredibly talented on the piano. However, when you start reading the book, you will discover it is actually written from Ada’s point of view and is more about her life than Cathleen’s so the blurb is entirely misleading.
Having been born in Cradock House, Ada feels like part of the Harrington family, even though her mother, Miriam, is constantly reminding her otherwise. Ada receives a rudimentary education and when she expresses an interest in playing the piano, Cathleen is happy to oblige as she is incredibly disappointed in the lack of interest shown by her daughter, Rosemary. Cathleen, frustrated by Rosemary’s insolent behaviour, finds the daughter she’s always wanted in Ada and does not hesitate in providing for her. However, Ada is a young black girl growing up in a country where the division between blacks and whites is about to get extremely ugly.
The Housemaid’s Daughter begins prior to the Second World War and recounts the story of the Harrington family in South Africa before apartheid divides the country. When Ada is a child, the colour of her skin hardly seems to matter to her since she is sheltered inside Cradock House and is treated favourably by Madam. As a result of the attention she receives, Ada grows up naively believing she will be just as entitled to the mysterious future Cathleen’s son, Phil, is always talking about. Ada and Cathleen have a unique way of communicating as Ada reads the journals that Cathleen deliberately leaves around for her, learning about her Madam’s disappointment and hopes for Ada. The mother-daughter relationship between Ada and Cathleen is the heart of this story and I had a great deal of admiration for this woman who could so easily see beyond the colour of a person’s skin despite the political climate of her adopted country.
While Cathleen is determined to bring out Ada’s potential, her husband, Edward, has serious misgivings because he knows the dangers of giving Ada false hope, so it is incredibly ironic that he is the one responsible for bringing about Ada’s downfall. A period of intense loneliness leads Edward to seek comfort in Ada’s arms, however Ada is entirely ignorant about sexual matters and feels duty bound to accept Edward’s attentions. Aware her body is changing, Ada is dismayed when she discovers she is pregnant and a kindly black doctor tells Ada a few home truths about the prejudice she and the child will face. Horrified, Ada flees Cradock House while her mistress is away and heads for the nearby township to live with her aunt.
After the Second World War, the apartheid movement gathers pace and many news laws are introduced, including one which prohibits whites and blacks from having a sexual relationship and Ada is dismayed when she is shunned after the birth of her daughter, Dawn. For me, this is where the book became more interesting because the naive Ada finally disappears, replaced by a woman of immense courage who dedicates every waking moment to keeping her daughter safe. I liked how the author portrayed the worse and best sides of both white and black characters here, and there is one particular poignant moment when a despairing Ada takes her sick child to a white pharmacist who turns a blind eye to the girl’s skin colour to provide her with some much needed medicine.
It isn’t long before Ada and Cathleen find their way back to each other with Cathleen finally learning the circumstances behind Ada’s disappearance. Cathleen brings Ada and Dawn home to Cradock House, ensuring her husband’s silence by threatening to reveal he is the father of a mixed race child. Safe in the sheltered walls of Cradock House once more, much of the violence tearing South Africa apart remains at a distance but there is always a danger Ada’s daughter will be discovered. As Ada returns to the familiar haunts of her childhood, much has changed as she realises she can’t sit on the benches in the park as she once did because they are now designated for whites only. Although the author does talk about violence on a larger scale, mentioning names like Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, she choses to concentrate on the everyday changes that affected daily lives since Ada is far removed from most of the wider politics.
The Housemaid’s Daughter merely scratches the surface of the political situation in South Africa which is fine because the important part of the book for me is the powerful and remarkable bond between Cathleen and Ada.