My friend kept raving about a book she’d read. She was comparing it to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, which is her all-time-favourite.
“You have to read it!” she said. “It’s fantastic. I’m going to buy it for you!”
And she did. And I’ve just finished it. And she was right.
Often, when someone tells me I just have to read a book/see a film/visit a restaurant, I’m a) sceptical and b) disappointed – but not this time and now I’m recommending The Help to you.
The book is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. ‘Where black maids (the ‘Help’ of the book’s title) raise white children but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver’ (quote from the blurb on the back cover). There are three main female characters and the story’s told from their individual points of view, using lots dialogue, which really brings the characters to life. This novel does what all the best books do: it draws you completely into another world, to the extent that you forget your own for a while.
It’s author Kathryn Stockett’s first novel and film rights have already been snapped up. (Sigh). As a writer, I was really interested by the author’s notes at the end, in which she explains her motivation for writing the book and the demons that she struggled with.
As she wrote it she was ‘scared’ that she’d crossed a line ‘by writing in the voice of a black person.’ She was also afraid that she couldn’t do justice to a relationship (with her own black maid) that had been so loving and so influential in her own life. She was afraid that she’d told too much about the relationships between black and white women – and also afraid that she hadn’t told enough.
I couldn’t have written this book. And I’m not just talking about the style and skill of Kathryn Stockett’s writing. I don’t have experience of 1960s Mississippi that she has described so beautifully and all the research in the world couldn’t have brought me close. Which made me ask myself – what ‘worlds’ do I know? What worlds could I write about, that no-one else could?