Saturday, 15 January 2011

1/111 - The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This book was becoming a big deal just as I left England at the end of August. I could have bought it back then, but I didn’t. This is the kind of book that I would have grouped as one step above chick-lit. More like middle-class chick-lit.

However a couple of forces came into play which made me decide to buy and read it. Laura Miller’s essay on suggesting how to be a better reader in 2011 prompted me to pick it up and cast aside my totally unfounded judgements about this book. One of the things she suggested was to read something you think you normally wouldn't enjoy. Something to push you out of your comfort zone. Admittedly The Help is not really all that ‘out there’, but it’s not something I would normally choose for myself. (I should also say that this essay was also a little responsible for the prompt to get this project off the ground and finally read all the books I've accumulated over the last few years.)

The other factor in choosing it was my upcoming job interview at Penguin that week, and I thought it would be shamelessly studious of me to read something both recent and successful of theirs, since there is not a whole lot of penguin in my reading history.

As it turned out, my concerns were unnecessary, firstly because I enjoyed the novel very much, and secondly, Penguin came nowhere near close to asking me what kind of books I liked to read, which I thought would be pretty standard for a job with a company which publishes books. Silly me.

Now onto the book: Almost as soon as I started reading it, I thought I'd have a hard time, because a great deal of it is told in dialect. Out of the three narrators, two of them are black maids serving in the houses of white ladies. However the dialect was not as distracting as I had thought it would be, and as I got into the rhythm of the story, I quickly stopped noticing. This is a plus, because if I hadn't gotten used to it, I probably would have given up on it. Although it's no Clockwork Orange, by any stretch of the imagination.

I stormed through this book, partly because my interview at Penguin was the next day, but mostly because I was just really enjoying the story. It's not highly literary or even all that groundbreaking, subject-wise, but I just enjoyed it. I liked the characters and I cared about what happened to them.

One of the main things which I think Kathryn Stockett achieves very well is a sense of realism. I have read a couple of Jodie Picoult novels over the last few years, and my most hated part of them is how they are full of 'impossible' dilemmas that the contrived characters are too bereft of common sense to solve without causing another massive problem for themselves. They are full of overly dramatic revelations and characters with too much tunnel vision and not enough common sense. I assumed that The Help would be more of the same. I was wrong. That's not to say it's without drama, but it's more well-tempered than Jodi Picoult, and I didn't find myself exasperated when the token 'Independent Woman' finds herself a man - she doesn't! And that's okay.

I'm not going to talk about how much I admired the characters for their courage and blah blah blah, because it's all pretty straightforward and admirable stuff to do with civil rights, which as a Brit, I really don't know enough about. But it is good. And not too dramatic.

I don't have much else to say about it. I never grew up in an atmosphere with any sort of hired help, so I can't really relate to anything in the novel, from either perspective. It was enjoyable. It probably won't change my reading habits much, though. I guess I have not learned much so far.

Next is: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and on the side, The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan.

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