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Former Rhodian pays homage to the Karoo

Date Released: Wed, 23 February 2011 14:36 +0200

Launched at NELM’s Eastern Star Gallery last week, Barbara Mutch’s second novel, Karoo Plainsong, is inspired by a series of fascinating lives; to the adventures of her Irish born grandparents as well as the native people of the Eastern Cape. 

Having grown up in Port Elizabeth and spending a lot of time in the Karoo, Barbara was studying Pharmacy at Rhodes University in the 70s when she met her future husband, Laurie in the Physics Department (“in the typical Rhodes fashion,”) who was studying towards his Masters in Physics at the time. They now spend “as much time as possible” at their house in Cape Town and in London, where she has lived for the last 16 years.

Karoo Plainsong tells of the story of Ada, an unschooled young black woman who blossoms under the tutelage of a generous Irish family. She learns to read, write and play the piano brilliantly but after bearing a mixed race child, she is forced to flee.

Lyrically erudite and elegant, Barbara presented an engaging talk on the many inspirations for the novel. “The novel began as a seed sown by my grandmother, while she was playing the piano one day,” Barbara recalled. While she shared musings about her earlier life with her granddaughter, a marvellous story of romance, compassion and a sense of place unfolded.

In the 1900s, soon after being engaged to Barbara’s grandmother, her grandfather was offered a job as the manager of Cuthbert’s Shoes, soon to be established in Cradock in the Eastern Cape. After five years of teaching piano in the city, “she set sail aboard a Union Castle Line ship, carrying her wedding dress in a suitcase, with the plan to disembark, get married and then travel to Cradock by train”.

Soon after taking up a post as teacher, she often wondered why there were no black pupils at the school. Then, when she employed a young black woman, she was met with tacit disapproval. “By the time I was born, that racial inequality was entrenched in law. My experience was then layered on top of hers to what would become Karoo Plainsong. I wrote about what I had left behind, thereby gaining a fresh perspective on South Africa. Growing up here has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. I knew I wanted to write a novel that showed both the brilliance of this country as well as its shadows,” says Barbara.