This rather beautiful books tells the story of three women, two of whom – Aibileen and Minny – are black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s, when racial segregation meant that black and white people could not mix socially, could not use the same restaurants, and could not go to the same hospitals or churches. The third woman is a white girl named Skeeter, who comes home from college with dreams of becoming a writer. She eventually decides to write a book about what it is like to be a black maid working for a white family, and she, Aibileen and Minny become embroiled in an exciting and potentially dangerous project.
I’m not sure I can accurately put into words how much I enjoyed this book. The three narrators’ voices (Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter) come through beautifully and each character is distinct and wholly believeable. We see each character’s life through their own eyes, and watch as they cope with their own problems (Aibileen is still grieving over the death of her son, and trying hard to make the young child she looks after grow up to be a nice person; Minny lives with an abusive husband and several demanding children; Skeeter has an over-bearing mother who won’t explain the sudden disappearance of Skeeter’s beloved childhood maid).
As well as the three central characters, there are a multitude of other people of great importance to the storyline. Hilly Holbrook is a long time friend of Skeeter’s, but the bond between them is pulled very taut as the hypocritical and bigoted Hilly dislikes Skeeter’s desire for awareness and change. Their other best friend, Elizabeth Leefolt, is Aibileen’s boss and it is her daughter who Aibileen cares for (seemingly far more than Elizabeth does). However, my favourite of the ‘supporting’ players is Celia Foote – Minny’s boss, who herself feels an outsider, as Hilly and her friends consider that she is not good enough to associate with them.
Historical events such as the death of JFK and Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech are covered here, adding to the already very real sense of the time in which this novel is set.
One of the things I most admired about the novel is that the author does not just show the characters as either good or bad. She shows them as totally believable people. Some of the nicer people sometimes do less-than-good things, and some of the not-so-nice characters in the book can show that they have a heart.
I loved this book, and would say it is definitely my favourite book out of all that I have read this year. It’s thought-provoking, funny in places (look out for the scene with the toilets), and it made me cry in other places. I was riveted throughout; my attention was grabbed on page one, and was held right through to the last page.
Utterly fantastic read, and very strongly recommended. 10/10