Book review: The Housemaid's Daughter by Barbara Mutch

21 Aug

Cathleen Harrington leaves her home in Ireland in 1919 to travel to South Africa and marry the fiance she has not seen for five years. Isolated and estranged in a harsh landscape, she finds solace in her diary and the friendship of her housemaid’s daughter, Ada. Cathleen recognises in her someone she can love and respond to in a way that she cannot with her own husband and daughter. 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.

When Ada is compromised and finds she is expecting a mixed-race child, she flees her home, determined to spare Cathleen the knowledge of her betrayal, and the disgrace that would descend upon the family. Scorned within her own community, Ada is forced to carve a life for herself, her child, and her music. But Cathleen still believes in Ada, and risks the constraints of apartheid to search for her and persuade her to return with her daughter. Beyond the cruelty, there is love, hope – and redemption.

The Housemaid’s Daughter is a captivating story on many levels. Starting in 1919 and spanning the lifetime of Ada (the Housemaid’s daughter of the title), the book is an absorbing story of love and friendship across boundaries. It’s also a gripping and often shocking depiction of the history of a country and culture that I knew little about as I started reading.

Ada is the narrator, telling her own story and as readers we grow and learn with her. Ada has a very striking voice which is innocent yet insightful and I found it hard to put her story down once I’d started reading. Through Ada we are able to see into two very different worlds; that of the wealthy Harrington family, Ada’s employers and that of Ada’s own community and the townships they live in. Thanks to the close relationship that Ada develops with lady of the house, Cathleen Harrison she finds herself in a privileged position; taught to read, write and play the piano and at times treated almost as one of the family. But with the privileges come heartbreak as the outside world begins to divide itself into black and white and Ada’s trust ultimately leads to her having to leave the home she loves, pregnant with a mixed-race child.

The contrast between Ada’s life at Cradock house and her life in the township is stark and I was full of admiration as I read for Ada’s courage and drive to create a life for herself and her child. Mutch’s descriptions of the Karoo, the town of Cradock and the surrounding townships are vivid and detailed and combined with the use of music, make this a very sensory book. I thought the use of music was excellent; Mutch’s descriptions of both Ada and Cathleen’s piano playing are beautiful and really do provide a soundtrack to the story, mirroring the ups and downs of events and the emotions felt by the characters. I loved Ada’s descriptions of the ‘music’ of the township too and the effects that her music had on the children there.

Ada’s dedication to her mistress was touching and at times heartbreaking. As the story twists and turns through Ada’s own turmoil against the backdrop of political unrest and increasing violence, the introduction of apartheid and the dawn of a new generation of South Africans, Mutch keeps the story on a very personal level which makes the impact even more intense. The extracts that Ada reads from Cathleen’s diaries which are spread throughout the book, provide not just the history of Cathleen’s  journey to a whole new world but allow her own voice to come through and as much as this is Ada’s story, The Housemaid’s Daughter is the story of the Harrington family too and the secrets that can unite and destroy. I thought the diary entries added depth to the wonderful relationship that Cathleen shares with Ada and were a nice touch.

I like stories that follow a character through their lives and The Housemaid’s Daughter does this very well. The historical elements are clearly well-researched and the story plays out against a series of significant world events but the book didn’t feel like a history lesson as I read and I thought the ending was excellent.  Originally published as ‘Karoo Plainsong’, the novel has been fully revised as Barbara Mutch’s debut novel and I look forward to reading more from her in future.


You can find out more about Barbara Mutch and The Housemaid’s Daughter on her website at: and on the Headline website at:

The Housemaid’s Daughter is out now in hardback and ebook formats and will be released as a paperback in January 2013.

I’d like to thank the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this novel.

2 Responses to “Book review: The Housemaid's Daughter by Barbara Mutch”

  1. Alexa @ Alexa Loves Books 21st August 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    This book sounds incredible – and I look forward to reading it!

  2. Bernadette Murphy 27th August 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Great review, will certainly read it.

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