Friday, 10 September 2010

Book Review: The Help

About a couple of months ago, I was sent The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a bestseller in the US which has now been published in the UK in paperback. I love to read, and the description of the subject matter interested me enough to want to read it. As luck would have it, a friend had just finished reading it when I started and warmly recommended it.

Between work and being a mum, I don't get a lot of time reading, so with maternity leave, I really wanted to catch up on reading a few novels and was looking forward to this one. And a good read it was. It's one of those novels that are real page turners and where you hate to put it down. One of those where you actively make time to keep reading. It's the type of novel that I really want to read these days, something that keeps me engaged and flows easily, I simply don't have the time or inclination to read anything that is a struggle, whatever the literary value might be.

So from this perspective, The Help has my thumbs up. There was lots of empathising with the main characters, a literary journey to the south of the US which I've never visited in reality, and some enjoyable reading hours.

Just that two things bothered me about this novel, and while they didn't affect my enjoyment of the read, they are still significant. For one, it's a novel that I'm sure will only appeal to women. All three protagonists are women, and so are the minor characters. Men play an unbelievably minor role in this story which in itself would alienate a male reader. Yes, I realise that many of the books I read have male protagonists only and I still enjoy them as a female reader, and there's as such nothing wrong for a female author to do the opposite - and my criticism is tinged by literary convention (i.e. female readers are happy to read about men, while I make the assumption that men don't enjoy reading female themed novels). But it's more than just the characters: the setting, the subject matter, really everything is in a female domain, even the writing style and the way that the reader is made to empathise with the characters is just extremely female (and I accept that I'm riding on gender stereotyping here). I'd love to hear about men who've read it and be proven wrong, but I've got a feeling it won't be read or enjoyed by many men and that's a shame.

Secondly I felt uncomfortable that the novel attempts to portray the experiences of African American home helps in white households in 1960s Mississippi from the perspective of two black women (and one white woman) when the author is white. To be fair on Kathryn Stockett, she addresses this problem in her epilogue and acknowledges that she cannot lay claim on portraying feelings or experiences authentically because she herself has not lived through being a black help and that her novel is an attempt at bringing this world closer to a white audience. However, she did choose to narrate the novel from the perspective of three women, two of whom are Black, which implicitly lays claim to being able to understand and narrate such feelings and experiences. Now, I'm not saying it's impossible. There are two novels I absolutely love written by men who write from the perspective of a female character, and they got it oh so right. With Kathryn Stockett, I'm just not sure if she did. And how come it has to be the white character whose actions lead to some sort of emancipation of the black women? That to me is plain patronising.

So I finished the book with the satisfaction of a good read that entertained me, but that ultimately was a bit inconsequential. It didn't inspire me, it didn't tickle me, it wasn't outrageous. Maya Angelou, and particularly Toni Morrison are just two examples of African American women writers who actually have the authority to write from the perspective of African American women. I'm sure nobody really compares Kathryn Stockett to them (ha, I'm wrong, a quick google search has shown that the comparison has been made), but if you want to really get an inside into the female African American experience, they are the authors to read.

If, however, you're after a great and uncomplicated read, one which tackles life in its ups and downs but always keeps a positive outlook on things, The Help is definitely worth reading and highly enjoyable. And it's a good book to get a heated discussion going, because I'm sure many people will disagree with me on the points I've made.



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