I had started reading Villette while I was travelling, but I'm afraid that after 120 pages, I had to give up. Maybe the story of a lonely Victorian governess in dark, rain-sodden France just wasn't working for me as I reclined on a sun-lounger in 42 degree heat in Andalucia, or maybe it was that the style was so over-wrought and almost sycophantic; whatever the reason, I just couldn't get into it, and have left it sitting woefully in a villa in Spain.
When I returned, then, I was bookless. Currently not-reading. The first thing I did was go through my ever-increasing bought-but-not-yet-read (the 'yet' is crucial) pile, but nothing grabbed me. My head was all over the place and anywhere but here, and I would read 3 pages of something and put it down in frustration, unable to connect with the written word. Grrrr.... Then I picked up The Help. And it turns out it was exactly what I needed.
Now, this is not a great work of literature, a life-changing novel; it is not the new To Kill a Mockingbird. Had it been written and published in 1964, it most certainly would have been both of those things. But context is an important aspect in the making of a classic, and while I loved this book (and I am far from alone there), I think it is important to wade through the praises heaped on it, and to consider it as simply an exciting story filled with wonderful characters, well-written and easy to digest. It is a reminder of the way things were - although I am aware that similar communities do still exist around the globe - and looks at the Civil Rights Movement from a new perspective; from, in fact, an entirely female perspective. This gives the story a unique spin because, as Minny and Aibileen discuss at one point in the novel, women can exact a far more ruthless revenge than men can; their ability to work slowly, chipping away at the foundations of a life they intend to destroy is a far more effective and frightening method than a one-off violent act. The women in The Help are both each other's support and each other's worst possible enemies - the way the League ladies treat Marilyn Monroe-alike Miss Celia is as appalling and as prejudiced as the way they treat their maids. But she is from the wrong side of the tracks, and in Jackson, Mississippi, only Miss Hilly Holbrook's side matters.
Hilly is an almost cartoonish villainess. She is a southern belle Cruella deVille - the description of her final visit to Miss Skeeter, hair akimbo and clothes hanging out, reminds me of nothing less than Cruella's defeat at the end of 101 Dalmations. And yet Hilly's defeat is a long way from total - we know, as readers, that she will pick herself up and continue to treat the black members of her community in the same way she always has. We know this because we know people like her still exist. And we know, more worryingly, that though there may be only a few as awful as Hilly Holbrook, there are many, many Elizabeth Leefolts: the friend who is too weak to do anything, too scared to speak up, too preoccupied to form an opinion of her own. These people - the ones who sit by - are the majority, and are just as damaging.
Kathryn Stockett uses key events in the struggle for Civil Rights as pegs on which to hang her story, and this is a useful and effective technique. We can place the fictional characters in the real, historical world. We can dress them accurately, we can feel the wide outside swirling around them, even as Jackson seems caught in a web of time, unable to free itself and move forward. Miss Skeeter's desire to be free of this claustrophobic society is brought to a simple, easy head when she hears Dylan for the first time on the radio and realises that elsewhere in the United States, the times are indeed a-changing.
The three narrators have endearing voices, and we warm to each of them immediately they open their mouths. Stockett's use of dialectical phrase is just right - Aibileen's words ring true and honest, not foreign enough that we struggle to understand her, but with an accent that places her exactly.
This novel is an ideal easy-read, without being vacuous and forgettable. It does nothing new or daring within itself - indeed, it is almost a novel-by-numbers; questions are set up one after the other that ensure we stay with the book till the end: what happened to Constantine? Did Minny really do to that pie what we fear she did? What is the matter with Miss Celia? What did Stuart's ex-fiancee do? We care, we really do want to know the answers to these questions - and that is Stockett's skill. Her talent lies in her creaton of wholly believable characters, in whom, within mere pages, we are entirely invested.
There is a short epilogue-of-sorts, in which Stockett delivers a mini-autobiography. The fact that she has written from some personal experience, in this case, adds to the book. It authenticates the stories of Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. I know that there must be snippets of real events in here - some incidents must be founded in reality. I can't help but wonder if the pie story is one of them. And I can't help but hope it is, hope that some white lady, somewhere, really did get her just desserts...