Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Books – The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, published in 2009, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, and explores the relationships between white middle class ladies and ‘the help’, their black maids. It is told from the perspective of three very different women: Aibileen and Minny – two maids who could not be more different – and Skeeter, a young white female journalist. When Skeeter begins to think that relationships in their town between employers and employees isn’t quite what it should be, the three of them are brought together. This is another one of those books I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out, and have only just got round to.

What I like about this novel is that it is about a big war played on a small playing field. I like that the civil rights movement is explored within this domestic – and almost entirely female – setting, in a world of social politics and petty popularity contests, where The Benefit takes on bizarre significance to the middle class ladies inhabitants of Jackson town. A lot of the drama in the book comes from what seem like small issues – toilets, pies, local reputation – but Stockett uses these things to explore wider oppression. It’s done well.

I’m also impressed by the characterisation of the minor characters. So many novels fall down on the minor characters, and I thought The Help did not. For me, the mostly untold story of Lou Anne and Louvenia is perhaps the most touching in the entire book. I like the slow shifts of character in Miss Skeeter’s mother.  Johnnie and Celia are very well created, as are Stuart’s parents.

Yet on other characters – oddly enough some of the main ones – Stockett to me falls down a little. There’s room in the characters of Skeeter and Hilly for so much more complexity than really got through. Hilly seems at times a stock villain. We’re given a momentary insight into some sense of humanity in one brief detail: for all that Hilly is a detestable person in so many ways she, unlike Elizabeth, does love her children. This hints at a humanity that makes her racism and ignorance even worse, and yet it’s never really touched upon. And Skeeter though far less racist than Hilly, is still disgusted at the very thought that her maid might have had a child with a white man. These complexities are hinted at but never really explored.

Minny and Aibileen are stronger characters, but their voices could have been made more distinct, from one another and from Skeeter’s. The structure of the novel is a clever one. I always love multiple narrators, and I enjoy the way that these three voices interweave with one another. Nonetheless, while Stockett at first seems to embark on an attempt at dialect, especially in Aibileen’s narrative, this is a bit inconsistent. There are times in reading the narrative of one character that, were it not been for the names beginning the chapters, you might not know exactly whose narrative you’re reading. So much more could have been made of these multiple voices.

There’s something else I feel unsure about in the novel’s narrative style. Each narrative is told in first person present tense, but it isn’t quite inside the character’s heads; the tone is instead conversational, as though they’re telling you what’s happening as it happens. This might have worked better had the book been written in the past tense, but as we’re in the present tense it makes the narrative a little stilted and jumpy – distant almost. (This seems like a very writery criticism. I blame my MA.) I think there’s a danger when using the present tense that jumps in time and skipped scenes just feel unnatural. Sometimes months pass in a paragraph break or are narrated in a few sentences, and other times we see scenes vividly in the moment. This means that, in The Help, it feels contrived when we are and when we aren’t in the narrators’ heads.

I suppose my main issue with The Help is that more could have been done with it. It’s a moving, fascinating novel, but it could have been even greater. The multiple voices could have been explored more, the whole concept expanded. It’s not a thin book, but it is telling three people’s lives over two whole years, and by the end feels a little rushed. The individual complexity of characters and their lives are hinted at but never properly explored. Celia alone could have had her own book. I was left bewildered and curious by the character of Leroy. I love the range of characters and maid-employer relationships, but at times it does feel like we never get to see any of them fully. The way in which Stockett hints at comparisons between male-female oppression and white-black oppression has so much potential, and this too seemed under-developed.

Yet this is a book novel, and one I enjoyed a lot. I read it in about two days. It’s a carefully plotted and clever book, engaging at every turn. I was never bored while reading it. And ending too was strong. Anyone who reads this blog will know that I have a great tendency to criticise the way book’s end. In this novel, however, I really felt that the three central characters had the correct endings. For a moment, especially in Skeeter’s narrative, another ending was possible, and I’m glad it didn’t go this way. The Help is by no means a perfect book, but it is certainly well worth a read.

Greatest strength: Perhaps the emotional force of the book, and its ability to be consistently engaging.

Greatest weakness: The fact that a lot of the book was a bit underdeveloped.

Let’s finish on a quote: Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realise, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

Next week: We shall be having another guest review by Chris King, of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids

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