Perfect pacing builds tension in paean to womanhood
Paternity, humanity and love are explored around the kitchen sink in this gripping debut, writes Hilary A White
Fig Tree, €10.55
The "literary sensation" tag may sit uneasily with Kathryn Stockett, but it's a snug description for the Mississippi author.
Since its release last year in the US, The Help, her first novel, has sold more than two million copies and counting, and will be adapted for the big screen by DreamWorks. And all this after some 50 rejections from publishing houses.
Reading The Help, it's hard to imagine Stockett's manuscript being snubbed. True, there are finer works of fiction on the bestsellers charts, but her tale of racial politics in Sixties Mississippi homesteads was not only timely amid the residual euphoria of Obama-mania, it was simply too promising a foundation for accessible literary fiction.
It deals with the then-widespread phenomenon of black housemaids rearing children of absentee white employers whilst being denied rudimentary domestic rights. As a backdrop, we have the civil rights movement, the assassination of JFK, and Martin Luther King's rise to prominence. Most of the things avid novel readers feed off are served up -- dramatic tension, a textured depiction of times past, and open-heart surgery on issues of paternity, love and humanity.
The narrative takes the form of rotating perspectives by three characters in Jackson. Aibileen is the solid, maternal housemaid (a possible echo of Demetrie, Stockett's beloved and oft-mentioned minder in real life). Another maid, Minny, meanwhile, is stocky, surly and always shooting off her mouth to the detriment of her career, while also being the best cook in the area.
Lastly, Skeeter is the white college graduate who arrives home to the plantation to find her own cherished housemaid Constantine has left. In her quest to find out what happened, she forms an alliance with the other two women.
Before long, the trio is breaking conventions and has established social codes in a bid to document what life is like for "the help" in Jackson. In doing so, the women risk punishment, both within and outside of the law.
Exciting isn't quite the right word, because we never feel like Stockett is going to sacrifice any of our ladies to get our attention. She's too compassionate and, besides, she doesn't need to. Instead, she uses good, old-fashioned pacing.
Her build ups are mild and sugar-coated, a bit like the venomous society ladies our heroes are up against. But within them lie hidden detail -- a curt observation, or something overheard on the phone. The tautest drama of all, it turns out, can be that of the kitchen sink. It is here, as toddlers teeter about and staff second-guess their employers, that Stockett gently grips us.
Look past the racism thread and you're essentially reading a paean to womanhood; one where feminism threatens to taint the otherwise full-bodied prose. Virtue is associated with being plain-featured, while glamour and vanity are signs of weakness. The few male characters are mere props, and while Stockett provides insight into how the sexes interacted then, the romantic saga between Skeeter and a suitor is ultimately dull. You wonder was she just trying to pad out the text.
The theme of being a writer also loiters. Skeeter is tested as she interviews suspicious housemaids and tries to meet deadlines, a reflection of Stockett's research phase for The Help. Equally, her fantasies as a fledgling author ring through as the manuscript quickly finds a willing publisher, sells out and becomes the talk of the town. Stockett, we suspect, could only have dreamt such things during her tortuous, if ultimately sensational, trajectory.