“The Housemaid’s Daughter”
“The Housemaid’s Daughter” by Barbara Mutch (St. Martin’s)
Quiet, grievous loss pervades “The Housemaid’s Daughter.” The novel is about a black woman and her white mistress in South Africa, each dedicated to the other and both cruelly undone when apartheid is enacted and becomes their new reality.
Barbara Mutch’s first novel, a saga spanning five decades, is reminiscent of “The Help,” in that storytelling makes the obscenity of institutionalized racism vivid. Ada Mabuse is born and raised at Cradock House, the daughter of a devoted servant, and much beloved by the mistress, Cathleen Harrington, who has reason to be disappointed in her own daughter, Rosemary.
The mistress, “Mrs. Cath,” emigrated from Ireland in 1919 to take up life in the semi-desert region of Karoo. Hers is a loveless marriage, her husband Edward a stern man. He closes down her attempts to have Ada educated, knowing the controversy it would cause.
Ada grows even dearer to Mrs. Cath through the years — more so than her own daughter, who leaves for the bright lights of Johannesburg, almost a shocking act for a single woman of the era. It’s when Mrs. Cath makes a trip to the city to rescue Rosemary from one of her messes that Edward finds his way into Ada’s bedroom. There are consequences.
To spare Mrs. Cath both the pain and the shame of her pregnancy, Ada steals away to a black township, a mire of poverty where she is shunned once her child, Dawn, is seen to be light-skinned. Ada hard-scrabbles a living as a music teacher at the local school as violence erupts around her. Apartheid becomes the law of the land in 1948.
From there, the story takes Ada through the years of shielding Dawn from her mixed-race birth, a return to Cradock House — where Mrs. Cath’s determination to keep them hidden places her family in jeopardy — and Dawn’s eventual need to follow her own dangerous path to Johannesburg.
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, the brutality of apartheid has been recalled to mind. In “The Housemaid’s Daughter,” Ada perseveres with dignity, Mrs. Cath acts from love, and their bond defies the ugliness of the times. Mutch risks a trite premise to write what is in the end an involving story.
“My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind”
“My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” by Scott Stossel
The editor of the Atlantic magazine, Stossel has suffered from debilitating anxiety and phobias since childhood. With humor, insight and intense research, he sheds light on the disorder that is believed to affect one in seven Americans. From a historical overview to a review of current treatments in a book laced with fascinating personal anecdotes, Stossel delivers authentic perspective on such suffering.
“The Longest Date: Life as a Wife”
“The Longest Date: Life as a Wife” by Cindy Chupack
From a sex columnist and TV writer formerly married to a gay man comes a comic riff on the trials of marriage that contains more than a few truths. After finally meeting the man of her dreams and marrying him, the self-centered author finds she doesn’t like some realities, like having a sniffling husband around when he has a cold. Her husband has some issues with her, too, and she doesn’t like that, either. But as they face challenges, the two grow together. And isn’t that what marriage is all about?
“In the Blood”
“In the Blood” by Lisa Unger
Best-selling author Unger is reliable in that she’s always scary. In this novel, Lana Granger, a young woman whose father is in jail for murdering her mother, takes a job baby-sitting for a disturbed 11-year-old, Luke, in upstate New York. Lana herself was a disturbed child and carries a nasty secret with her. Diary entries document the menacing behavior of a child we assume is Luke. But Unger neatly distorts our perceptions, so there’s no telling what is what. Well done.