Thanks to erp for recommending The Help by Kathryn Stockett. At the time, it hadn't yet been released here and I had to wait for my pre-ordered copy to arrive. Now it is my turn to recommend it to everyone in the UK.
Publisher Fig Tree (23 July 2009)
Paperback 464 Pages
This novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, turbulent times as the civil rights movement gathered momentum. The photograph used on the cover of the English edition of the book was considered too controversial for the American version; forty or so years is not, after all, very long for old prejudices to die out completely or for old hurts and sorrows to be forgotten. Kathryn Stockett, who grew up in Jackson, uses the voices of three very different women, each courageous in her own way, to give a real insight into the complexities of a segregated community.
Aibileen is a black maid, who does the shopping, cooking and cleaning for the Leefolts, a young white couple. Like all black maids, she has the responsibility of raising the children of the family; she loves looking after babies and little Mae Mobley is her seventeeth charge. Aibileen only stays with a family until the children, who have loved and depended on her while small, become racially aware and begin to treat her differently.
Minny is her friend, another maid, famous for her caramel cake and her unfortunate temper. She is used to losing jobs because of her "sassy tongue." At the beginning of the novel, she is maid to the rich, elderly mother of Hilly Holbrook, the leading light in Jackson Society, who uses her influence to make it impossible for Minny to find another job.
The third voice is that of Miss Eugenia Phelan, known to all except her mother as Skeeter because of her long, leggy resemblance to a mosquito. Skeeter, Elizabeth Leefolt and Hilly Holbrook were best friends at school. Elizabeth and Hilly married immediately after school but Skeeter went away to college and has just returned to find a mystery at home: the disappearance of Constantine, the maid who brought her up. No-one will tell her where Constantine went or why.
It wasn't long before I felt I knew these three women well and cared very much about what happened to them. Their lives become entangled following Hilly's insistence that the Leefolts build a separate bathroom (outside the house) for Aibileen. Black maids can look after the children but not use the family bathroom. Overhearing this conversation leads Skeeter to begin to think about the way that maids are treated and to wonder what they feel about their lives. She begins to investigate, not realising what danger she will be exposing the maids to and the consequences for her own life.
I won't spoil the story (I do hope no-one listened to the ghastly adaptation on Woman's Hour), but I promise there is mystery, tension, brutality, snobbery, deceit and enormous bravery in store for the reader. There is also tenderness, affection and a lot of humour. It is a long book but one that I couldn't put down.