Tuesday, 27 March 2012
Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver. Some lines will never be crossed.
Aibileen is a black maid: smart, regal, and raising her seventeenth white child. Yet something shifted inside Aibileen the day her own son died while his bosses looked the other way. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is by some way the sassiest woman in Mississippi. But even her extraordinary cooking won't protect Minny from the consequences of her tongue.
"Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter returns home with a degree and a head full of hope, but her mother will not be happy until there's a ring on her finger. Seeking solace with Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, Skeeter finds she has gone. But why will no one tell her where?
Seemingly as different as can be, Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny's lives converge over a clandestine project that will not only put them all at risk but also change the town of Jackson for ever. But why? And for what?
The Help is a deeply moving, timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we won't. Itis about how women, whether mothers or daughters, the help or the boss, relate to each other - and that terrible feeling that those who look after your children may understand them, even love them, better than you . . ."
This is a subtle, poignant novel about the relationships between white and black in 1960s Mississippi. But it is also about the complex world of employer and employee, where the black maids know all of the Society Ladies' secrets, but their employers know next to nothing about them.
Stockett depicts a sweltering, tense, segregated town which is mired in the oppression and abuse of the time; the gentle narrative exposes its ugliness whilst simultaneously highlighting the love, support and hope between individuals in both communities. Much is made of the incident in which white thugs blind Robert, but the black community's support for Louvenia is touching and LouAnne's own quiet contribution is one of the stand-out sections of the book.
These are simple stories, powerfully told. Stockett uses a first-person narrative to tell events from the point of view of three characters: gentle Aibileen, militant Minny, and misfit Skeeter. Each voice is clearly defined and has its own point to make: Aibileen's narrative is a gentle study of love between mother and child, nurse and ward. Minny's story is a study of rebellion against different people and ideals, while Skeeter tells a story about the pain of living in a world that feels wrong. I've read criticism of some of the supportive characters, some people felt they couldn't see the "point" of characters such as Celia, who don't advance the story. But there doesn't have to be a "point" to Celia. This is a character-driven narrative, where the relationships and interactions between the individuals is the central thesis of the book.
As the three women embark upon their project the sense of danger is palpable, and this intensifies throughout the book. The reader is reminded at every point that the women, especially the maids, are taking a deadly risk in pursuing their goal. The suspense and tension are well drawn, and the resolution is satisfying.
One of the most powerful themes in the book is that of influence: Hilly's baleful influence over the Society Ladies; Minny's power over Hilly; Aibileen's and Minny's subtle influence over each other; Johnny's devotion to Celia; Senator Whitworth's unconscious power over the "Patricia" situation; Charlotte's influence over Constantine and Constantine's effect on Skeeter. The novel explores the causes and effects of people exerting the force of their personalities and values over others, for good and ill.
In the opening third of the book the lines of influence are powerful, but as the book progresses unseen lines of rebellion come to the fore.
Throughout the second half of the book we get to see whether people choose to move against the status quo and if so, how. We can judge Elizabeth's spinelessness: she values Aibileen but is too afraid of Hilly to assert her preferences in her own home. We can applaud LouAnne who always seemed insipid, but is revealed to have a steel of her own. And we can see the impact of the fulfilment of the project in both communities. But as a study of rebellion, the most memorable event in the book has to be Minny's awe-inspiring "Terrible Awful", her revenge on Queen Bee Hilly. The horror and comedy in the culmination of Minny's "sass-mouthing" juxtaposes wonderfully with the more weighty issues in the work.
This is also a book about people in difficult times hiding behind stronger people. I've already mentioned Elizabeth: she hides behind Hilly and implements her cruel initiatives, despite at times seeming to hold affection for Aibileen. Skeeter hides behind Aibileen for the Miss Myrna column, but Aibileen also hides behind Skeeter, as the white face needed to write the column. Celia tries to hide behind Minny in order to please Johnny. But the most touching instance again involves larger-than-life Minny, who sacrifices herself and hides the maids behind her "Terrible Awful", in order that the full consequences of the book fall only on her.
The best section of the book, to my mind, was the section dealing with the Benefit. The relationships between all of the women are stretched to breaking point and no-one is seen at their best. The scene perfectly illustrates the tension between individuals and between the races as a whole but is tinged with the comedy of Celia's drunken appearance and the start of Hilly's decline.
Ultimately, this is a book about women and how they relate to each other as mothers, daughters, employers, employees, friends, accomplices and enemies. Although men such as Leroy and Senator Whitworth command power on the periphery of the story, the central changes in the book, the hope and misery, come from the women.
This book is primarily described as a book about racial tension and the fight for social justice but it is also about the differences and similarities between women and the power they have to shape their world. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Tuesday, 6 March 2012
"An amiable corporate manager by day and a matchmaker whenever he can get around to it, Calvin Newsome’s new dream job falls into his lap when he’s recruited by a secret worldwide organization whose agents use uncanny abilities to empower and influence everyday downtrodden individuals. Disaster strikes, however, when an elaborate scheme leaves Calvin as a prime murder suspect…and his new employer is presumably to blame.
With the authorities on his heels and his life left in ruin, Calvin uses his new powers to blend in until a journey for freedom becomes a quest for peace. As the agency’s rival organization threatens the security of all of earth’s inhabitants, he teams up with unlikely allies and battles surprising enemies hellbent on unleashing their power in a twisted version of justice, innocent lives be damned."
Guy Harrison's espionage thriller is a fast-paced exploration of corruption and abuse of power. The central character, Calvin, is isolated from his life through his induction into the Agency of Influence. He is then isolated from this new world when he is accused of murder. Calvin's journey is a simple but powerful one: he is a man being pushed continually out of his comfort zone. When he takes action he doesn't try to regain his old life, he seeks to push his enemies out of their own comfort zones and create a new world order. It's an exciting story packed with twists, disasters and suspense.
Calvin's characterisation emphasises his incongruity with each new environment: he doesn't conform to stereotypes or cliched modes of behaviour, and this pushes his character towards being more original than your average super-spy. On occasion I found the passages expanding his character to be a little clumsy and detail-heavy, with exposition which was unnecessary, as Calvin's actions speak for themselves.
Calvin's induction into the Agency is vivid and imaginative: imbued with special abilities and a specific agenda Calvin's foray into his new existence is intriguing. I did however find that throwing him into heavy cases in a "field" situation with nothing but an instruction manual stretched credibility. Of course it chimes with the wider theme of Calvin being given no support by his agency, and even being set up for failure, but it still seemed to be a little precipitate in the induction process. I likewise found the "influence" exerted over Carla Andrews to be disproportionate to the relationship established with her, and her new determination was at odds with her previous indolence and depression, with insufficient cause to change.
Calvin is a strong character who drives the narrative well, but from a feminist point of view I found the supporting cast of female characters to be a little lacklustre. They are either evil or cold, but as Calvin is usually the focus of attention their deficiencies aren't too distracting.
The powers used by the two agencies add a different dimension to the espionage genre. They are simple but well depicted, and they grow into the central theme and argument of the novel: the nature of power, how people use it and how it uses them.
This is book one in a forthcoming series, and it ably establishes Calvin, the two opposing agencies, and the world caught between them. It's an exciting thriller with plenty of surprises.