Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review - The Help

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

“The Help” marks the third book I have decided to try that is outside my usual genres. Whilst I adored, “Water for Elephants” by Sara Guen, I felt that Victoria Hislop’s “the return” was good but had its problems.
Of the three books, “the Help” has gained the most attention in the UK and has mainly positive reviews. Averaging 5 stars from 2,126 reviews on Amazon, I was looking forward to it to say the least.
The Blurb:
Be prepared to meet three unforgettable women:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
The book is split into three different points of view. All of them are highly readable but some fare better than others. The main point of view comes from Miss Skeeter. As a white lady and aspiring writer, Miss Skeeter is disillusioned with the treatment of black people. In an effort to impress an editor in the publishing world she uses this anger to write about something she is passionate about. She decides the best way to do this is to interview the coloured woman who work for white families and let them tell their side of the story.
Initially the risk involved in doing this is too much for the black people and Miss Skeeter faces the challenge of persuading them to take part. This sets up an interesting aspect of the book, but after initially persuading Aibileen, Miss Skeeter’s involvement in the matter is rather limited. Instead it is Aibileen who does most of the work which means Miss Skeeter comes across as rather passive. There are other elements to her story which are intriguing. Her relationship with her mother is fascinating as is her first real relationship with a young man she meets, although this is a bit predictable. However the other areas of her life such as the relationship with her father and brother are woefully underexplored.
Aibileen on the other hand is a great character and makes the book worthwhile to read by herself. She is the stoic, kind –hearted elder figure with a small dose of devilment in her.  In many ways, I wish the story had been told purely from her point of view. Her attempts to recruit her friends into participating in the interviews is riveting as she has to tread carefully around the white folk whilst also respecting the precarious position they are in.
Finally there is Minny, a great character in her own right. To the outside world she is feisty, strong and always pushing the boundaries as to what is acceptable. However to those that know her she has her own personal demons and struggles to cope with them. I enjoyed Minny immensely, but if I am honest I felt some of the impact of her character was diluted by giving her a point of view. Although, I did enjoy her sub-story with her new employer and the mystery around her behaviour.
The characters then get an overall thumbs up from me. Where I thought the book could have improved was the emotional impact of the events that took place. Kathryn Stockett does an excellent job or detailing some of the atrocities that took place in the era around the segregation between the colours, however most of it takes place off screen. We hear about it through the main protagonists hearing about it from friends. Whilst the events are abysmal, without knowing the characters that they happen to it is hard to feel any emotional attachment. This may have been realistic but harmed the story to some degree.
For example, the embarassing and truly appalling episode where Aibileen’s employer was having a new toilet installed so that the coloured help could have somewhere to do their business was great. Katryn Stockett really portrayed the awkwardness around the scenario as other characters openly discussed this with Aibileen and did a great job of portraying her torment between replying correctly to keep her job and what she really wanted to say. I just wish there were more events like this in the story that impacted the characters directly.
The end of the book delivers this to some degree, as when the book is published, the furor around it and the suspicions around who wrote it are intriguing. Although I was not displeased with the ending I did think more could have been made of this area.
Overall I enjoyed “the help” immensely. This review may appear to be critical of it but it is more of a “wish it was like this” rather than anything the book failed to deliver on. Kathryn Stockett mentions Harper Lee’s, “to kill a mocking bird” at least three times in the narrative. The book obviously influenced her, but it is just a shame that it is referenced so much as all it did was remind me how superior, “to kill a mocking bird” is.
My rating: 8.4