The Help in the way I recall from my childhood holidays, when friends would come calling at the door and I would be hidden upstairs reading something I couldn't bear to put down. And yet, as someone says on the Amazon page linked to above, it was also a book I was sorry to leave.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962, the story is told in three different voices as Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter tell their part in it. My heart sank a little at the beginning when I realised that at least one of the voices replicated the Southern speech of the narrator, for that was one of the things that stopped me from reading The Color Purple, but it's so cleverly accomplished that it soon became an integral part of my enjoyment. I think it may have to do with the complete lack of self-consciousness in the writing - there are no apostrophes underlining missing consonants, for example. It was no time at all before I was hearing these voices in my head, and relating them to my own contact with the Deep South a few years ago.
As with all novels set against a historical background, there is an inevitability about the grand sweep of events, but the individual experiences of the extremes of racial prejudice in Mississippi are gripping in their awfulness, their humour and their variety. The two maids and the lone white woman who takes their part against the prevailing mood are resourceful and brave - and cast a bright light not only on racial attitudes but also the assumption that 'help' is a necessity for a middle-class white woman and that white gloves and polished silverware are the norm in polite society.
I loved this book. At times I was horrified, at others I thought I knew what was coming and was proved wrong. Sometimes I had to put the book aside so that I could sleep. I loved the descriptions of the ... food, actually. I have eaten that food - the fried squash, the cornmeal, the grits - and it all came back in a flood. And over all I have a new respect for my dear friends Ruth and Ed, who lived through this time and fought for the rights of the black people of Alabama. The Help added another layer to the understanding that grew when I visited the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and for that I am grateful.
But aside from all that, it's a great read.