Fatherless and unschooled, Ada grows up in service to the Harringtons, a family of Irish immigrants in the remote South African town of Craddock. In spite of her circumstances, Ada receives a well-rounded education from her Madam, Cathleen Harrington. Impressed by the young girl’s intelligence, Cathleen teaches Ada how to read, write and play the piano.
But not everyone is comfortable with Ada’s privileged position in the household. When Cathleen suggests enrolling Ada in school, Master Edward discourages her. “It’ll only lead to trouble later on, expectations and whatnot.”
Spoiled and self-absorbed Miss Rose treats Ada shabbily and refuses to answer any of her questions. “I don’t have time to explain. You haven’t any money so you probably don’t need to learn to count.”
On the other hand, young Master Phil has feelings for Ada and is not afraid to walk with her in town or hug her at the train station.
After Miriam, Ada’s mother, dies and Rose heads for the bright lights of Johannesburg, Ada and Cathleen gravitate toward each other. As this unlikely friendship blossoms, rumblings of apartheid begin to divide the small community. A set of unfortunate circumstances force Ada to leave the only home she has ever known.
A natural storyteller, Barbara Mutch has a wonderful eye for detail and a gift for creating a strong sense of place. I particularly enjoyed reading the following description of the Great Flood: “At first it was a brisk eddy, then a howl of demented water that went way beyond the Beethoven rush of my youth, or the tumbling Grieg of Mrs. Cath’s Irish stream. This flood had no musical equivalent, and it raged at a pitch both higher and lower than anything I’d ever heard on the piano.”
In her debut novel, Barbara Mutch has provided an interesting perspective on the apartheid era, focusing on how it affected women on both sides of that huge divide in South African society.