I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett – I shan’t bother giving a full review, since I’m so late to the party that nearly everyone seems to have read it already, but it does provide a useful opportunity to talk about a general trend in my reading.
Very briefly, for those not in the know, The Help is about 1960s America – Jackson, Mississippi, specifically (which to me is chiefly notable for producing Eudora Welty and this wonderful song) – and the racial tensions of the time. Particularly those between maid and employee – the cast of characters is almost exclusively women, including the three narrators Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter Phelan. All three narrators are marvellously engaging, the whole novel is a terrific page-turner without sacrificing any narrative polish, and all in all it’s a very good novel. If it weren’t tremendously popular already, I would be waxing evangelical about it to all and sundry.
It’s not a flawless novel. You think the characters are complex (and some are) but then you realise that some of the racist characters are unrealistically bad in all ways – and there is an incident involving a naked man and a poker which needn’t have been in the novel at all (and isn’t nearly as unpleasant as I’ve realised that sentence sounds.) But it’s an extremely impressive debut novel, and it’s bewildering that 50 agents turned it down.
Simply to create three characters so empathetic and engaging (that word again; but it is appropriate) is an exceptional achievement. Novels were multiple narrators usually end up having one who isn’t as vibrant as the others, or one who is head and shoulders above the rest – not so, in Stockett’s case. I was always delighted to see any of them turn up in the next chapter – with perhaps a slight preference for irrepressible Minny. No, wise Aibileen might come top. Oh, but what about Skeeter’s enthusiastic confusion and determination? Oh, hang it, I love them all.
So why am I writing about The Help without reviewing it properly? To expose one of my failings, I’m afraid.
I had assumed, since it was so popular, that it would be very poor. If it hadn’t been for my book group, I wouldn’t have read it – and I’m grateful to the dovegreybooks ladies for giving me a copy (although I don’t know which of the group it was!)
You can excuse me – or at least understand where I’m coming from. If you’ve found your way to Stuck-in-a-Book, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve experienced a similar thing. Seeing Dan Brown and his ilk at the top of the bestseller charts, it’s difficult to believe that anything of quality could sell millions of copies, in the way that The Help has.
I did love The Time Traveller’s Wife, but other bestselling representatives of literary fiction have proven singularly disappointing to me. Ian McEwan’s recent output has been rather ‘meh’; Lionel Shriver’s fantastically popular We Have To Talk About Kevin was so dreadfully written that I gave up on p.50. Things like The Lovely Bones and The Kite Runner weren’t exactly bad, but I found it difficult to call them good, either. Bestselling literary fiction is usually vastly better than bestselling unliterary fiction (yes, Dan Brown, I’m looking at you) but it doesn’t excite me.
Remember a little while ago I posted that quotation from Diana Athill, about the two types of reader, and how the second type created the bestseller? Well, my experience had led me to believe that I’d never find a chart-topping novel that I really loved and admired. Perhaps a few would be page-turners, but I couldn’t imagine any would actually bear closer analysis too.
Well, reader, I was wrong. While Kathryn Stockett isn’t (yet, at least) on the scale of great prose writers like Virginia Woolf, she is certainly a cut above the usual. I’m delighted that I stepped down from my high horse long enough to enjoy it – or, let’s face it, that I was pushed off against my will.