Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: "The Help"

How a novel can reflect the realities of hired help in South Africa
by Frances Aron

It never fails to amaze me to hear how a popular novel had been rejected numerous times over. So when I came across the fact that Kathryn Stocketts bestselling novel The Help had been rejected 60 times before being published, I was stupefied. What a marvellous journey into the lives of women from the deep south of the US. The dialogue, to say the least, is so brilliantly written that I felt like I was there with the main characters, sitting aside watching all the drama of their lives.

Stockett must have had some experience, and if this experience was not first-hand, she demonstrates a sentient knack at understanding the workings of southern US mind-sets. I found the entire work utterly convincing. Its been a long while since Ive been so enthralled by a book.

However, its one thing to wax lyrical about the fully credible characters, the wickedly brave Minnie, the maternal Aibileen and the awkward, yet authentic, Skeeter. There are parallels to be
drawn between the portrayal of southern US society in the 1960s and that of South Africa today. While it might be a generalisation to say that the practice of domestic help has not changed that much, this still seems to be true. For how can it? For middle class South Africans to employ domestic workers from the other side of the economic divide, instantly invokes inequality, for want of another term. Note here I am not criticising work that pays the bread and butter of so many families. Yet, the entire concept of hiring people at an affordable cost to prioritise your lives, your childrens lives, above their own is in itself, flawed.

Being paid to prioritise others wellbeing is very common. Just look around you at your own communitys personal trainers, instructors, nurses, and even school teachers. It is not always a question of race, but wealth and education. This is not meant to be all doom and gloom. On the contrary, if jobs are created, people are respected and treated well, then surely these are all good things? However, I feel a story like The Help should bring to light the kinds of different realities individuals face, that how we see a domestic worker in our home setting is mostly our own construct. Its a constructed persona to fulfil a function. Lets not kid ourselves and think we can really befriend the help. Aside from risking being patronising, we have no clue where theyre coming from. There are many of us who are ridden with white guilt and truly want to make things better for those around us. The question is how to go about it.

Stockett has delivered her message with alacrity, tenderness and honesty. The tale holds no easy answers, but invites us to recognise the universality of human feelings and the importance of listening to one another. The wonderful father, Atticus, from Harper Lees To Kill A Mockingbird, also set in the deep south, tells his daughter, Scout you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view [] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Now I am ready to tackle the movie; above all, I am curious to see the interpretation of Stoketts remarkably real and vital characters. And I know who Ill identify with the most: Skeeter.