Set against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement in the early 1960's, the time of Martin Luther King and earlier, Rosa Parks, the times were a-changing as Bob Dylan sang. But, there is one group of women for whom the times are not changing and that is 'The Help', the black maids whom the wealthier white women hire to clean their homes and take care of their children.
The story is seen through three pairs of eyes in first person narrative. Two maids, Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter, a young white woman who returns home from college to find that her families lifelong help Constantine has simply disappeared.
When Skeeter returns home from college, having seen it as a chance to get an education rather than as her mother had hoped a chance to find a husband, she begins to see childhood friends Elizabeth and Hilly in new eyes after noticing the way in which they speak to and regard 'The Help'.
An incident occurs in which Hilly discovers that Aibileen, Elizabeth's maid uses the same bathroom as her and is outraged forcing Elizabeth to install a second bathroom in her garage and suggesting it should be a general policy.
What is striking within these moments in the novel, is the way in which the racism was so casual, commonplace, in some ways the only viewpoint any respectable white woman can hold if they hope to avoid being socially ostracized, rather than the jaw-dropping bigotry and ignorance we know it for today.
After this incident, Skeeter befriends Aibileen first in an attempt to find out more about the missing Constantine and then to get cleaning tips. Eventually, Skeeter decides that she wants to write a book an insight into the lives of The Help that the white employers take for granted and slowly but surely nervous maids begin approaching her...
What is good about this novel is the different narrative voices which are each distinct from the other, so that when you are reading Aibileen chapters as opposed to Skeeter's it feels real and sincere.
What I also liked about this novel is the quality of the 'silent voice' Aibileen and Minny's inner reactions to the events in the homes and the casual racism thrown in their faces by their employers. The silent rage they cannot express for fear of being fired, makes the reader angry for them and rooting on their behalf. The moment when Aibileen is forced to say thank you for being made to use a separate bathroom made me cringe with embarrassment and anger. Hilly, the self appointed Queen Bee of the piece, is also an excellent villain.
This book in terms of it's style of prose and narrative flow reminded me particularly of the authors Sue Monk Kidd and Joshilyn Jackson and their excellent books 'The Secret Life Of Bees' and 'Gods In Alabama' so I think if you liked those books you'll like this. I wouldn't say it was mind-blowing or earth shattering or trying to blaze a literary trail, but the kind of book you can read on a deckchair in a garden on a sunny day with a Pimms and find enjoyable. 8/10