Sometimes when a book is given as much attention as The Help has been I grow wary, wondering if it'll live up to the hype. I was the same with Wolf Hall. Fortunately, this proved to be as good as they said it was. I can see why it's a best-seller and I can see why the recent film was so popular. I can't wait to see that.
The Help tells the story of a small town in Mississippi and focuses on three women within it - black maids Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter, the white daughter of a fairly standard family. Aibileen is something of a child specialist, raising her seventeenth white child and trying to instil some colour-blind principles into her charge. Minny is tough-as-nails with a propensity to shoot her mouth off. Skeeter had a fantastic childhood relationship with her own maid and comes home from college to find her gone with no explanation. Skeeter begins to notice the arbitrary lines between white and black and comes up with a plan to interview maids and get their perspectives written down and put into a book.
The novel flicks between the three viewpoints for the most part. Chapter twenty-five deviates from this as it describes a scene that none of the viewpoint characters could have viably reported on. It was worth the slight jolt from the fictional world to get a full overview of that scene. The dialect of Aibileen and Minny is easy to get used to but certainly sounds authentic while Skeeter's chapters display the impetuousness and uncertainty of an intelligent woman trying to find her place in the world. There are many strands running through the novel - Skeeter's burgeoning relationship with Stuart, Minny's odd relationship with her new boss, Aibileen's touching moments with her young charge - but it doesn't feel overpopulated. It all matters in the end because every event and encounter feeds into the characters.
There were so many aspects of The Help that I loved (and so many characters I wanted to wallop). Stockett doesn't shy away from showing the downright terrible alongside the touching moments. Hilly Holbrook is technically the villain of the piece, a woman so disgusted with black people that she starts an initiative to have outside toilets built for the maids so they don't have to share with the white population. Hilly is all about barriers and keeping her place at the helm of...well, everything. Her punishment is extremely fitting and will get you laughing and cringing at the same time.
I suppose the run-up to the climax of the novel is absurd, but not in the way that it's illogical. It's absurd because it builds on everything we've come to learn about the characters and depends entirely on those characters being true to form. It's absurd because I felt as though I should've seen it coming - but I didn't. I'm not usually one for visible reactions to whatever I'm reading but one moment in The Help had me clapping my hand over my mouth in public and generally looking mad. That's an endorsement if ever there was one.