Discussion location: The Colmore Bar and Grill (overpriced, noisy, and drafty – another nil return)

Chosen by: Clare

Reason for choice: Saw film and really enjoyed it, always wanted to read book.

Review:

With her debut novel The Help, Kathryn Stockett clearly set out to make an impression. A story (or history) of racism; 1960s heavily segregated Mississippi, narrated through three women – two black maids, Minny and Aibileen, working for white racist women, and the unusually liberal, supposed friend of these women, Skeeter.

An aspiring writer, Skeeter begins to notice the injustices suffered by “the help” at the hands of her childhood friends and persuades the maids to be interviewed so that she can publish a book on their plight anonymously. At a time of growing racial tension, writing such as book is a dangerous feat for both Skeeter and the maids she interviews, but their courage prevails and the book is published, causing a media controversy.

In parallel to Skeeter’s book, a media controversy also surrounds Stockett’s novel, in part due to a lawsuit filed by Ablene Cooper, nanny for Stockett’s brother, stating that Aibileen is clearly her, and that she found it “embarrassing” and “humiliating”.

Similarly, critical reviews of the novel , now a bestseller, are largely split. Described by some as “an informative masterpiece” (The Guardian) and “a winning novel” (The New York Times), others have criticised the uncomfortable dialect of black women written by a white woman and the at times stereotypical and inaccurate depiction of black characters.

In particular, the Association of Black Women Historians stated “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers… [it] is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities… it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist…” and that it is “unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”

Further criticism has been focused on the “too-familiar tale of a white hero leading blacks to their civil rights victory”.  Moreover, some have found it frustrating that Stockett’s novel has become a bestseller while the more accurate and diverse representations of the time period by black authors have been largely ignored.

It must be said that aside from noticing the awkward dialect, the Unconventional Book Club was oblivious to the controversy when reviewing the novel. The Help is apparently a favourite of book clubs’, and indeed, received more compliments than complaints from us. Perhaps, like the British media who largely praised this book, our awareness of true American history is limited. Perhaps we are simply review novels as works of fiction.

In terms of a work of fiction, we complimented the novel on its split narration, which provided insight into each character’s perspective.  We also praised Stockett’s writing style as evocative and convincing. After a raft of books on oppressed women, we found that this novel (despite its criticisms) at least demonstrated empowerment, and depicted women who neither believe in nor conform to expectations.

In contrast, we criticised the novel’s slow opening, which only really gained purpose as Skeeter began writing the book.  Some members wished they could have read Skeeter’s book rather than Stockett’s. Despite the benefits of the split narration, Stockett’s book had a tendency to feel like a sequence of isolated incidents vaguely drawn together. Similarly, while being an inspirational character, Skeeter at times seemed inconsistently drawn, for example, in her selfish treatment of her mother.

On the whole, we found this novel enjoyable as a work of fiction. Whatever your opinion of it, it’s unarguable that The Help is discussion-invoking and thought-provoking.

Overall score: 7/10

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