Catch up on shows with The Coast On Demand
Friday, August 17, 2012 12:00 PM
It’s natural to romanticize history. Much of what humans do to each other is so ghastly that, in the wake of yet another epic cruelty, we’re tempted to look for a larger, existential explanation. The monsters of the Third Reich prompted the establishment of the United Nations and then the Genocide Convention; every Anzac Day, New Zealanders make an atypical collective display of patriotism by gathering publicly to utter a vow of remembrance.
Barbara Mutch refuses to throw a gauzy lens over the South African history she retells in The Housemaid’s Daughter. Against a backdrop that spans the middle decades of the 20th century and ends with the introduction of apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, she crafts an intimate story of a household in which two women’s banishment of the nation’s entrenched power imbalance dictates the trajectories of their lives. It’s a well-rendered narrative that is no less gripping for being subtle.
The titular housemaid is Miriam, whose mistress Cathleen left her native Ireland in 1919 to be reunited with the fiancé she had not seen for five years. The marriage, though far from blissful, is sufficiently functional to produce an accomplished, upright son, Philip, and Rose, a self-absorbed child who grows into a dissolute young woman and, on departing for the bright lights of Johannesburg, is dogged by rumours that she has gotten “into trouble”.
There is room in Cathleen’s life for a daughter, then, and Miriam’s premature death leaves Ada likewise love-starved. Cathleen has long admired the girl’s stoicism and intelligence, and against her husband’s advice (“If you let one in, they’ll all want places”), wants to have Ada schooled formally. She begins by teaching her to read, and lies to circumvent the prohibition against the lending of library books to black children.
Though they won’t realize it immediately, two moments of crisis will seal each woman’s fate. The first is the return of Philip, whose service in World War II has left him shell-shocked in the most classic, basic sense. Ada, who becomes his confidante, has the intellectual sophistication to recognize both the scope and threat of the shattered man’s trauma, but none of the power required to save him.
The second event won’t be discussed here, and is used by Mutch to ratchet up the scale of her story and usher in themes of miscegenation and segregation. Of course, what is legally forbidden may be privately indulged, and Cathleen and Ada’s modern family, though not one either would have constructed given the choice, is a groundless well of solace for both women.
It’s an intimate family saga that evolves partly into a tale of political passive resistance, with Ada, in her implacable courage, evocative of historic women such as the American civil rights figure Rosa Parks. If The Housemaid’s Daughter is at times confused, it’s only because of Mutch’s considerable and largely realized ambition, and her empathetic eye easily compensates for any flaws.
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