As I’ve mentioned before, I always find it difficult to write about a book that so many people have already read. I feel as if there’s nothing new I could possibly say and that nobody will want to hear about it yet again anyway (which I know is not true – there is no book that absolutely everybody in the world has read, however much it sometimes seems that way). But at least I’ve read The Help now and can see why it’s been getting so much attention. And I have to agree with all the bloggers who’ve been giving this book such glowing reviews because it really does deserve it.
The Help is told in the form of alternating narratives by three women living in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s. Two of them, Aibileen and Minny, are black women working as maids, or ‘helps’, for white families. The third is Eugenia Phelan, nicknamed Skeeter because she’s ‘long and leggy and mosquito-thin’. In contrast to the first two narrators, Skeeter is a white woman from a rich family. Skeeter dreams of becoming a writer and convinces Aibileen and Minny to help her write a book throwing new light on the life of a black maid in Jackson.
I loved all three of the narrators, who were each given very different and distinctive voices of their own. I thought it was impressive that Stockett could write so convincingly from the perspectives of three such different people. The intelligent, dignified Aibileen was a lovely, engaging narrator and probably my favourite. But Minny was an equally captivating character – she was outspoken and funny and in some ways felt the most real. I liked Skeeter too but found that she didn’t come to life for me as vividly as the other two. I found it hard to believe that she hadn’t noticed how cruel and prejudiced her best friends were until she reached the age of twenty two (and also hard to believe that she would have been friends with people like them in the first place).
The Help is a powerful and thought-provoking read which raises a number of issues relating to various aspects of racial discrimination, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, though I’m happy to leave it to people with more knowledge of these subjects to discuss them in the depth they deserve. Judging it purely on its merits as a novel, this was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. I was alternately enraged by the prejudice and injustice the black maids were forced to endure, amused by the antics of Minny and the other characters, intrigued by the well-meaning but very eccentric Celia Foote, and filled with loathing for Hilly Holbrook, one of the vilest characters ever!