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by Cheryl Goodenough

Karoo Plainsong is the story of Ada, an illegitimate, unschooled but brilliant pianist, who grows up in service to a family of Irish immigrants. Set against a backdrop of apartheid, the novel tells of Ada's seduction into an illegal relationship as a result of which she bears a mixed race child.

Forced to flee from the only home she knows, Ada must carve a life for herself, her daughter and her music in the bleak township that squats on the edge of the Karoo.

Torn between love for her surrogate family and outrage at apartheid's sins, she embarks on a dangerous double life as friend – and potential foe – of both black and white.

Written by Barbara Mutch, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants who settled in the Karoo in the early 1900s, Karoo Plainsong is a powerful tale of love, loss and redemption, and a journey into the soul of a fractured nation. It illustrates two simultaneous but contrasting views of South Africa under apartheid – seen through the eyes of a remarkable black woman who holds on for the miracle.

The personal tale of a woman's survival in a time of turmoil will be enjoyed by fans of romance, fiction and history.

Says Barbara: “Growing up in South Africa has been the most profound experience of my life. It is a deeply seductive – and conflicted – place. I wanted to write a novel that shone a light on this; that showed both its brilliance and its shadows.”

Having lived in South Africa for almost 40 years before moving to England, Barbara began writing about the country of her birth only once she'd left its shores. “It was as if being away gave me the ability to see it more clearly. My husband's expat assignment to London marked the start of my writing career, and London turned out to be the perfect place in which to nurture this new venture. The children love it, and so did I, for different reasons: The quality newspapers, the variety of television and theatre, the vibrant literary scene. Just the spur to get me going; and sufficient distance from the land of my birth to give me fresh perspective.”

Barbara says that the theme of Karoo Plainsong had been in her head since childhood. “It began as a seed sown by my Irish grandmother when she taught me to play the piano. Sitting by her side on the piano stool, I learnt more than the names of the notes and where to put my fingers to make a tune. I learnt about her long engagement to my grandfather while she was in Ireland, and he in South Africa. I listened as she told me about her eventual arrival in the country in the 1900s, and her excitement – and fear – as they journeyed for several days by train through the Karoo.

“The heat seared her Irish skin, the dust of the Karoo caught in her throat, the fiery sunsets were like nothing she'd ever seen before. And the world she was entering proved very different from what she'd imagined. For all the warm welcome she received, there were aspects of her adopted country that she found troubling. She was unprepared for the issues of racial inequality that were soon apparent, although they were not as yet enshrined in law. When teaching at the local white school, she couldn't help asking why black pupils were not admitted; when she befriended the young black woman who was hired to clean her new home, she felt the quiet disapproval of neighbours.”

Fifty years later, Barbara says that she was playing in her garden with a black child, who is the daughter of her parents' housemaid. “I begin to realise that copying my grandmother's early attempts to build bridges is, for my generation, impossible: Apartheid is now law. There can be no lasting relationship between black and white such as she tried to forge. My little friend and I can play together today, but tomorrow we will go our separate ways.”

Karoo Plainsong is a work of fiction inspired by Barbara's and her grandmother's experience. However, it is a tale of two imagined journeys: The first being the migration of an Irish family to a remote part of Africa and their attempt to build a new life there.

The second, and the major theme of the book, is the story of Ada, their black maid, who must fight to survive in a world that judges her by the colour of her skin.

Says Barbara: “Ada has other disadvantages, too: She is illegitimate, and she has never been to school. Despite these handicaps, she learns to play the piano and finds, in music, the belonging that is denied her elsewhere.”

She concludes: “Karoo Plainsong is a story of love, loss and redemption. It will make you laugh, and it will make you cry. It took me on a journey into my past, and then offered me the chance of a new beginning. It will take you on your own journey, too: Into the soul of a fractured nation, and into the heart of a remarkable woman who holds on for the miracle.”

For more information see www.barbaramutch.com.

Posted in books |
Posted by Cheryl Goodenough
15 Jan 2012

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