Monday, 14 July 2014

The Housemaid's Daughter in the USA... 6 months on

My novel, The Housemaid's Daughter was published by St Martin's Press in the USA in Dec 2013. Six months have passed and I have been fascinated by the reader response to the book. From the wilds of Montana, to the urban jungle of New York, folk have been getting in touch with me to tell what they thought of the story. You can get a feel for the reviews if you look up the book on or on Goodreads, the massive online book club that has millions of members.

The feedback that really interests me is when the reader contributes his/her own experience to a review. It is extraordinary how many people have spent part of their lives in Africa and bring their own background to bear. But it is equally extraordinary to hear from readers who have never set foot on the continent and yet can empathise with Ada and Cath in their fight for survival. I guess that a story of love, hope and redemption - as it says in the blurb - shows how we are inter-connected, wherever we live.

The longing of a heart draws me like no other. It speaks to me because it reminds me how to feel. You will be brought back in time to South Africa.

This book was moving and showed the reality that exists that divide the races. The system of apartheid in Africa was used as the setting, but we find radical racism in our own country.

In terms of official media reviews, the best I have received to date is from The New York Daily News. Do have a read of it. You will find it on the front page of my website,

Keep spreading the word to your American friends!

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Wars that influenced The Housemaid's Daughter

As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I have been struck by how short a period of time elapsed before that generation became caught in a second world war at the end of the 1930s. In the space of 20-odd years, the world stood on the brink of another huge conflict. And the men who had fought in the trenches were being called upon to serve again.

The call was heard in South Africa, former British colony and staunch ally from the earlier Great War. My father, a pilot, volunteered to join the RAF, and served in North Africa. As did my uncle, who honoured his background by joining the SA Irish and seeing action as an infantryman there as well. Sadly, he died at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in 1941. Both my father and my uncle were too young to have served in the Great War, but they went to battle with the clear knowledge from their parents of what a terrible conflict it had been.

When I was developing the plot for The Housemaid's Daughter, I patterned the character of Phil on my late uncle. (In a previous blog I have written about how I discovered my uncle's grave in Libya, via the efforts of the SA War Graves Project.) However, I wanted the fictional Phil to survive the battle and return to South Africa to play his part in the novel. In addition, I wanted to reflect the hugely damaging effect of shell shock - what we now call post traumatic stress - that has affected so many in both World Wars, and also in recent conflicts. As I wrote about Phil and his struggle to overcome the legacy of his war, I read about how today's soldiers and civilians are being rehabilitated from the same tragic condition.

I hadn't meant this blog post to be depressing, but it is sad that we are still subjecting young men and women to the same kinds of shocks that so devastated an earlier generation on battlefields that are now 100 years old...

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

French Connection...

There's a new edition of The Housemaid's Daughter out in France!
It is still under the same lovely title, Une Chanson pour Ada (A Song for Ada) but this new version has a particular audience: the members of France Loisiers, a well-known French Book Club.

I was asked to write a personal dedication for their members, which has been included as an extra page in the new edition, just after the title page and before the dedication.

Bonne lectures a mes amis de France Loisiers en compagnie de Ada
Barbara Mutch

I have already had some great reviews from French readers. It seems that the intertwined lives of Ada and Cath have struck a chord. I guess it is not altogether surprising that French readers have identified with my South Africa tale... after all, French men and women have made a powerful contribution to South Africa since the arrival of the French Huguenots in the 1600s, who developed the wine industry around Franschoek - and also gave us some wonderful French-South African cuisine.
Here's one review, from the publication Le Dauphine Libere (apologies for the lack of speech marks, my blog software doesn't reach those heights!)

Une saga magnifique avec juste ce qu'il faut d'emotion, d'indignation et de verite historique.
Un grand moment de lecture!

And happy reading to France Loisirs!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Piano Postscript: featuring The Housemaid's Daughter audiobook

Here's a quick postscript to my last blog, which described the vintage Zimmerman piano that has been in my family for many years, and which I appropriated for Cath and Ada to play in The Housemaid's Daughter.

When Audible UK was about to make the audiobook for download onto iPods, iPads, telephones etc, the first priority was to find an actress who could capture - through her voice - the essence of the book. After several auditions we settled upon Lisa Dillon. She has a wonderfully melodious voice which fitted not only the characters but also lent a subtle lilt to the words I'd written.

The next task was to find a suitable introduction. Ideally we wanted an excerpt from The Raindrop Prelude, the exquisite Chopin composition that becomes Ada's signature piece - and which echoes the joys and sorrows of the story as it unfolds.

But finding a vintage recording proved to be tricky for various legal/copyright reasons.
So... the Zimmerman was thrust to the fore!
Using amateur equipment (how about the microphone from a mobile phone headset dangling amongst the hammers!) we recorded me playing the opening section of the Prelude. After a couple of false starts we managed to get a clean recording - but compete with some hisses and scratches that perfectly mimicked a vintage sound from the 1940s/50s.

So, if you happen to download the audiobook, listen carefully! That's the Zimmerman you can hear, in all its grand, 110 year old glory!

By the way, if you prefer to listen on CD, Blackstone Audio in the USA have created a boxed set read by Bahni Turpin and Cat Gould.

Happy listening, however you prefer!

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Piano at the heart of The Housemaid's Daughter

Music is at the centre of my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter.
For the two main characters Cathleen Harrington and her housemaid, Ada, music is an inspiration - and a refuge in troubled times. For Ada, it goes on to become a crucial path out of poverty.

My personal piano is a Zimmerman, built in Leipzig in 1911, and at some stage taken on a journey to Africa. After a full reconditioning, I bought it in South Africa in the early 1980s - struck by its magnificent tone and that "extra" that a great piano gives.

When thinking about the piano that would play such a vital role in the book, there was no need to look further. The Zimmerman became Cathleen's beloved piano, and later Ada's. Because Cath and Ada are better pianists than me, I made sure to give them pieces to play in the book that would have stretched the venerable Zimmerman, and revealed its true richness! Liszt's La Campanella, Chopin waltzes and nocturnes, Debussy's Clair de Lune...

I often reflect on what Ada said about music, and the instruments we play.
Every piano has its own heart, and deserves to be given its due if you want it to recognise you and give you its music.

And, later, when life became harder for her
Music - and maybe life? - depends less on the quality of the instrument or the player, than it does on the commitment with which it is played...

My old Zimmerman is nearing the end of its journey. After many years in the heat of Africa, it returned to the northern hemisphere with me in the mid-90s, and has been here ever since. A little faded and somewhat bruised, but still possessed of that great heart.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

What's your favourite book?

As soon as my book, The Housemaid's Daughter, had been published, people immediately wanted to know what I read, what my favourite book was!

And it's not an easy question to answer. I think favourite books are often defined in our minds by the era in which we happen to read them. For example, when I was a teenager, I began to read all of my father's second World War books, and that led me to First World war poetry, which I love, and thereby to All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I still think this is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, but perhaps it was because that was the genre that captured me at that stage of my life...

My twenties were defined by the 1970s, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and free love! I read the affecting Daniel Martin by John Fowles, and on the non-fiction front, everything I could get my hands on about American politics and Watergate. And then there was the unforgettable duo of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk. These became, for me, an echo of the sharpness of Remarque's All Quiet...

In the 1980's, I discovered Toni Morrison's Beloved, which won the Pulitzer for fiction, and was later to influence me when I came to writing my own novel. Her uncompromising prose, her ability to look life in the face, makes it a read I will never forget.

In a gentler, more poetic vein,the 1990s saw the publication of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Was there ever a more lyrical, exquisitely written book? I still go back to it. As I do with The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's masterpiece written against the backdrop of the Belgian Congo. And Imaginings of Sand, by Andre Brink, set in South Africa during a time of violent transition.

Since then, life has gathered pace - as it does when we get older! - and the brilliant books have come thick and fast, defying categorisation, or my particular age or interest. The Hours, The Garden of Evening Mists, The Book Thief, The Great Game, The Age of Wonder, Bring up the Bodies...

A life of reading is, I think, a life well lived.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Who's listening/reading out there?

I've been writing my blog for almost 4 years!
I started in June of 2010, to mark the self publication of the manuscript that would become The Housemaid's Daughter. 88 blogs later (gasp) and I'm still at it. Why?

Mostly because of the comments and interest from readers who've read the book and then spotted the blog in their wanderings around the Internet and got in touch either via this page, or facebook, or my publishers. Here's one:

I am in a small town in North Carolina, US, and yet I've been transported to South Africa. I have been tearful though much of your book... but now they are tears of joy and hopefulness...

UK readers make up the highest percentage of those reading the blog, followed by North America and South Africa. Recently, with the publication of the US edition in Dec 2013, the number of interested American readers has shot up and is about to eclipse the UK figures. But it's the smaller numbers that are the most intriguing: there has been steady interest from Russian readers - despite the fact that there is no Russian translation as yet. And, furthermore, the Russian figures are double those from Australia, which is really strange given that the Aussies have had the book in their shops for a year or so. And who would have expected a faithful contingent from Latvia? (no Latvian translation yet, either)
I wonder...

It has certainly been a journey for me, from the early days of promoting the book on my own and wearing out much shoe leather, to the arrival of The Housemaid's Daughter in a variety of languages - and its easy availability on kindles and iPads and all manner of smartphones. I clearly remember holding an iPad at a fair in 2010 before the device was released in the UK. I never imagined that within a few short years I'd see my first novel on its screen. Or that I'd be writing a regular blog about its progress.
So keep sharing and spreading the word!