This is an amazing book. If you read it, be prepared to think about it for days, weeks, months afterwards. Be prepared to lend it to your friends, telling them how amazing it is. Be prepared to have a Mississippi accent whirling around your head for the next week.
Kathryn Stockett’s fictional narrative about white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s was our book group choice this month. Many of us had read it 2 years ago, when it featured on many bestseller lists. All of us were glad to have the opportunity to read it again, myself included.
The story is narrated by three women: Aibileen and Minny, who are both domestic helps, and “Skeeter” Phelan. Skeeter is a white woman, who begins to look at the black women in a different way when she realises how her friends treat their maids. She starts writing a book in which the maids tell their stories, putting themselves and their families at huge risk. Skeeter’s perception of the society in which she lives is changed dramatically by getting to know Minny, Aibileen and their stories.
I have read the book twice, and probably enjoyed the book more the second time around. With the first reading, I was anxious all the way through. This is something that Stockett does very well, hinting at the depth of racism and its violent consequences. The maid’s grandson who is blinded for using a white bathroom. The community member who is murdered outside his own home. The fears of Minny and Aibileen are an ever-present ominous shadow over the story.
Stockett achieves balance in the novel tremendously well. The three narrators balance each other well: smart, sassy Minny, reflective, wise Aibileen and clever, naive Skeeter work well. Stockett also achieves a great balance of tragedy and comedy within the book, and some of the most memorable moments in the book are also the funniest. I loved the character of Minny, with her hard exterior which juxtaposed effectively with the secret of her domestic abuse. Each of the members of our book group had their own favourite character.
The small-town petty-mindedness of Jackson is skillfully written, with Hilly Holbrook being possibly one of the most vicious, manipulative, yet believable characters I’ve ever read. She leads the attack on Skeeter, forcing her out of society in a way that only women can.
This is definitely a women’s novel, and all the members of the book group who were present for the discussion were women. But it’s also a book which opens your eyes to history, and its consequences for today.
We gave the book our highest score ever: 9/10.