South Africa before, during and after apartheid, portrayed through the eyes of a black woman and, to a lesser extent, the white woman who becomes her benefactor as well as her employer.
In 1919, Cathleen Harrington leaves Ireland and starts a new life in South Africa with her fiance, Edward, who has already settled at Cradock House in the town of Cradock in the semi-desert area called the Karoo. In 1930, Cathleen’s unmarried black South African maid, Miriam, who has become Cathleen’s close if unequal friend, gives birth to a daughter she names Ada after Cathleen’s sister back in Ireland. While devoted to her own children, sweet-natured Phil and hardhearted Rosemary, Cathleen takes Ada under her wing, teaching her to read and play the piano. Ada, a gifted musician, is in turn devoted to Cathleen, who regularly leaves her intimate diary open with the tacit understanding that Ada will read it. While Rosemary treats Ada with cold propriety (perhaps understandable given Cathleen’s clear preference for Ada over her own daughter), sensitive Phil seems remarkable, even naïvely colorblind in his affection for Ada. By the time he hugs her goodbye before leaving to fight in World War II, his friendship has romantic overtones, although it remains pure. It is adolescent Ada who nurses him when he returns. Unfortunately, Phil never comes to life as an actual character before his early death, so the unconsummated romance feels more perfunctory than tragic. More believable is Cathleen’s passionless marriage to Edward. After Edward behaves abhorrently toward Ada, she runs away in shame. But she eventually returns, remaining as committed to Cathleen and Cradock House as she is to her friends, family and comrades in the black township as they suffer increasingly harsh laws before rising in victorious defiance.
In creating a white Lady Bountiful and a wise but unworldly black servant, South African Mutch has more in common with The Help’s Kathryn Stockett than Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer.