Waiting for the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee)
**** ”I found Waiting for the Barbarians a surprisingly difficult read. I’m normally quite a fast reader, particularly when a text has really gripped my imagination, but in this instance I really struggled to finish it. Not having read Coetzee before, I didn’t know what to expect – and so I began to read the book with an open mind – but after the first few pages I began to feel unbearably bogged down, for want of a better description.
I stuck with it, persevered, and made myself keep going – reading it in an entire day. A small slim volume such as this might only take me 2 hours at most – but I wanted to finish it, so ploughed on through to the end. Perhaps with a novel such as this one, the readers can get involved in a spirited debate about oppression – but I actually felt oppressed myself, just by reading it. I was transported to that dusty landscape against my will, I didn’t want to be there but found myself there regardless – and could feel myself sliding further into a pool of despair, the more of it I read.
I wanted very much to be able to sympathise with the Magistrate, yet something held me back, I’m not quite sure what. I was repulsed by the barbarity of Colonel Joll and his associates, I was disgusted by the lack of support for the Magistrate by the people he had tried to help. One can draw comparisons with modern-day Middle Eastern countries, the actions and reactions could be said to be very similar – they’re confusing at the best of times. The reactions made me question human behaviour – I tend to hold a very simplistic outlook on life and human behaviour in general – and so I was left thoroughly depressed by what I was reading – was there no redemption at all?
We were not actually presented with any evidence as to what the ‘Barbarians’ were really capable of – everyone was waiting in fear for something truly terrible to happen when the Barbarians would arrive – but the real barbarism (for want of a better word) – occurred inside the city walls, on the ‘protected’ side of the frontier. Joll was a barbarian, his soldiers were barbarians, the locals weren’t much more than barbarians themselves. The Magistrate was a barbarian too – an odd type of sexual predator, forcing the girl into a physical relationship. Anger crept through me reading it, all of it – I felt cheated by the author, I wanted him to present me with evidence of justice, but there was none (unless I missed something along the way).
Overall, I found it a strange read. Perhaps Coetzee has succeeded in what he may have set out to do – because this text left me unsettled and appalled, depressed, and wishing I had not read it at all. I don’t feel any better off for having read it, but there you go, those are my thoughts on it. It will be interesting to find out what others thought/ think of this text.” ****
The Help (Kathryn Stockett),
now an Oscar-nominated film featuring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone & Jessica Chastain
**** ”Although The Help wasn’t selected as Book of the Month from the longlist available, I happened across a copy in the bookshop last week, bought it and read it in an evening. I thought it was superb – and I can see why the film adaptation is doing so well on the awards circuit at the moment. The book is narrated by several key voices, and highlights elements of the civil rights movement in early 1960s America. Set in Mississippi, it recounts the experiences of a number of (fictional) black housemaids at the hands of their white employers, and it would break your heart to read some of the things they had to go through on a daily basis. What happened to the characters reflected much of the actuality of that period. It’s an education.
It’s a book within a book, so to speak. Author Kathryn Stockett grew up in Mississippi, a white girl with a black maid, and moved to New York at the age of 24. She says she would be the first to complain about her home county but God help anyone else who should put it down. She said she was apprehensive about writing in the voice of a black woman in the book, and that there are some things she never got around to highlighting in it. However, one of her main characters is Miss Skeeter (Eugenia Phelan) a white woman accused of being an ‘integrationist’, who wants to be a writer (very strongly based on Stockett). Skeeter manages to convince a number of local black maids to help her write an honest account of their lives in a book entitled ‘Help’, and she is chiefly assisted by Aibileen and Minny – who, along with Skeeter, are the book’s narrative voices.
We don’t read/ see/ hear events via the voice of the main racist in the story – Minny’s employer: an incredibly bigoted 24 year old Ms Holbrook, chair of the local League (Community Association) who does her best to turn the entire town and county against Skeeter, also accusing Minny and Aibileen of theft in the process to help tarnish their names. But we are presented with a very clear picture of her, and she’s more than unpleasant. Sometimes, my jaw would drop when I read about the likes of Holbrook’s segregation ideas, such as trying to introduce separate toilets for whites and blacks, in the white homes. As a result of her idea, a toilet was built for Aibileen in the garage, so that she would no longer have to use the Guest Bathroom and thereby ‘offend’ the ladies attending Bridge Club!
The stories are told against a backdrop of civil unrest, domestic violence, grief and loneliness. In Skeeter’s case, she sticks out like a sore thumb, an embarrassment to her family, unconventional looking, different, having to hide her writing aspirations to try and please an oldfashioned family who would rather she married the local Senator’s son and developed a life akin to Ms Holbrook’s! Minny is the mother of several children and the only time her husband doesn’t physically abuse her is when she is pregnant. Aibileen lost a son a few years previously and hasn’t really got over it. He had potential, he was smart, and wanted to be a writer. The three of them are bound together and each of them helps the other to be free.
Thankfully, good triumphs over evil – I found that so heartwarming after reading Waiting for the Barbarians – I had become totally involved with the characters (in The Help)and was happy to discover they had all been given a chance to change things, making a difference to others’ lives, as well as their own. I was happy that Stockett offered her readers a result, a sense of justice prevailing, a decent outcome. I’d quite like to see the film now and compare it to the book. Overall, I would recommend The Help – it gets a thumbs up from me!” ****