The story is told through the eyes of three characters - two of them maids, who are best friends, and a white girl - and the narrative is passed between the three of them. This is not a novel with a wild and extensive plot, in fact if you analyse it you could almost say nothing much happens, but the characters are so well written that you could imagine they were real people.
Essesntially the book looks at the way that black people in general, and domestic servants in particular, were treated in Mississippi in the early part of the 1960s. And, although of course we all know that there was still segregation in parts of the US at that time, this book really brings it home to you what that meant for people. It wasn't just about sitting at the back of the bus and having seperate churches - this was every single aspect of life, as if black and white people were seperate species, never mind colours. And this didn't happen in some faraway time we can just call "history"; segregation wasn't completely stopped until 1968 - thats only five years before I was born.
The white girl in the novel - nicknamed Skeeter - is a gangly, awkward twenty-something who's just returned from university to find that her beloved childhood nurse and family servant, Constantine, has left in mysterious circumstances. Skeeter dreams of being a writer, and develops a correspondance with a publisher from New York who encourages her to write something on a subject that's close to her heart. So she decides to write a book of stories told from the point of view of "the help", and asks her friend's maid, Aibleen, to help her by telling her own story and finding other maids who would be willing to be interviewed. And perhaps in the course of the interviews she can also find out what happened to Constantine.
We get caught up in the everyday lives of Aibleen and Minnie and the people they work for. Aibleen's employer is a prim, cold woman with an adorable but neglected little girl, while Minnie gets a job working for a fragile "white trash" woman who seems oblivious to the class and colour distictions that exist between them. And over the whole town presides Hilly, a spiteful social climber who exerts control over everyone and everything.
As the women tell their stories for the book they become ever more scared by the enormity of what they are doing and what the consequences will be if their identities are discovered. The tension towards the end of the book is agonising - will they be found out?
The Help turned out to be the best book I've read all year. I just wish Aibleen and Minnie were real so I could buy them a drink and listen to them tell me some more tales.