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?
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 relations 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.