Black maids and white children
The Help Kathryn Stockett (Penguin €10.55)
When I came across this book by an unknown author, I had no idea it would be such a gem, though the endorsement by Marian Keyes should have been a clue.
Once started, I couldn't put it down and, suddenly, it seemed like everyone was reading it. Friends here and abroad were raving about The Help; book clubs devouring it.
As a result this debut novel has been near the top of the bestseller lists here for weeks now, repeating the success it had when it first appeared in the US a year ago.
Set in the author's home town of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s, where black maids raise white children but aren't trusted not to steal the silver, it's not just the heat that is suffocating.
Bored white housewives, themselves in thrall to their rich husbands, frequent country clubs, dehumanise their maids and ostracise any white women who don't agree with their bigoted views.
Oblivious to the irony, they channel their energy into charity work for the poor children in Africa.
Against this background and that of the nascent, turbulent civil rights movement three colourful and strong women decide to buck the system.
Aibileen, who is bringing up her 17th white child, has learned to keep her mouth shut and tries to protect the child from her distant mother. Her friend Minny is the best cook in town but is repeatedly sacked for answering back, leaving her family near destitute.
Lastly, Skeeter is a visionary being cold-shouldered for her views by the friends she grew up with, led by uber bitch Hilly.
Defying her own heritage, Skeeter begins a dangerous collaboration with the maids on a book about their experiences working for Skeeter's friends -- a project which threatens not just the maids and Skeeter but the cosy status quo of the pampered and self-satisfied doyennes of the Deep South.
Beautifully written, with engaging, empathetic characters, The Help shows the civil rights movement from the women's point of view. It is at times deeply disturbing, funny and warm.
Readers will be disgusted by the vile Hilly and feel for the white-trash Celia who has married into the elevated society but will never be accepted by them.
Mostly, they will cheer for the heroines, Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter, who make Kathryn Stockett's first novel so memorable.