Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

--The blurb--
"Amidst the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement, three Mississippi women quietly start their own revolution with a book, some toilets and a chocolate pie. Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver...There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell..."

--The review--
Given that the highly successful The Help was published in 2009, it would appear that there are still some readers who are a little late to the party (including this writer). However, latecomers should not delay further - Kathryn Stockett's début novel deserves immediate attention. Even if you read nothing else in 2013, make this vibrant and moving opus a priority.

The novel's frequent changes in narrator could be confusing or frustrating, but instead serve to keep up the novel's pace and heighten tension in a positive way. Stockett's mastery of dialect, humour and malapropism is evident from the first pages, and this also keeps the reader hooked. It's perhaps inevitable that such dexterity is not consistently sustainable throughout the book: its weaknesses are that Mae Mobley sometimes speaks with far more perspicacity than is realistic for a three-year-old, that the friendship that purportedly existed between Hilly and Skeeter is insufficiently developed, and that the chapter on the Benefit is redundant (as its happenings could have been told just as easily in half the space through other characters' direct and overheard speech). However, this ultimately does not detract from enjoyment of The Help overall.

Stockett generally controls and develops the relationships in the novel effectively, reinforcing the bonds between Skeeter and Aibileen so that they go from strangers to friends in a realistic and heart-warming manner. As third protagonist Minny is drawn in, and their plans become even more intricate, the reader too becomes increasingly involved, making the unfolding of the trio's story addictive. All characters, without exception, are vivid and human, as well as taking on multiple dimensions so that no one group or person is clearly designated as hero or villain. 

Setting, lifestyle and history is also deeply ingrained in the story-telling, meaning that from Stuart's Confederate shrine of a home to the iced tea and grits prepared lovingly by Aibileen, the reader is left with a more developed understanding of the culture and circumstances in which the plot of The Help is enshrined. It's possible that the ending is a little rushed; however, by this stage readers feel so engaged in the characters' cause that the denouement is simply able to wash over them. The endings to each character's tale provoke mixed emotions, but are wholly appropriate after all that has gone on. The fruits of Stockett's meticulous research are well worth her efforts as readers shut the book with a sense of significance, satisfaction, and the desire to immediately reread (while waiting, of course, for Stockett's next book).

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