Adult Book Reviews · Book Reviews 2016 · Literary Fiction Books

‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch–“Scout”–returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past–a journey that can be guided only by one’s conscience.
Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision–a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

2.5 stars, rounded to 2

Most people are familiar with Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – it has become an American classic, with its anti-racism message and its iconic characters in Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch. So, when it was announced that a manuscript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in its earliest form had been found – and was being published as a sequel – it became a must-read for many. Set twenty years after the classic, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was Lee’s first attempt of the novel, before being advised to rewrite it from a child’s point of view, and having finished it I can see why a re-write was necessary. Despite being branded as a sequel by publishers, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is anything but a sequel: it is an unpolished piece that was destined never to see the light of day, like the first drafts of every novel, and while it is an interesting historical artefact providing an insight into ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and potentially a useful tool to writing students to illustrate text developments, as a novel it is fundamentally very weak.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I think this novel could be viewed in two lights – as the original version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and as a piece completely independent of it – and how you view it can potentially alter the response to it. One thing that is worth noting is that it is by no means a sequel. Yes, it is set twenty years later, back in Maycomb with the characters we know and love, but the novel does not run as a sequel. Of course, it was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and the later version would have made changes so that the two no longer completely run in continuation – for example Henry, a central character in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ who is meant to be a lifelong friend of the Finch family, is nowhere to be seen in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. When relating this book to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, it is better to view it as an early draft. As it came beforehand, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ contains stories and passages almost identical to those in its successor, such as the story of the Cunninghams and the Coninghams, which was recounted in both books almost identically. As a first draft, I will say that it slightly ruined the integrity of Lee’s message for me. Besides the Atticus-KKK link being discussed everywhere, there was casual racism in the novel, even from Scout (or Jean-Louise as she is now known), despite her being portrayed as the voice against racism. Her behaviour towards Calpurnia, essentially telling her to stop behaving in a ‘black’ manner, was appalling, and when the voice supposedly raising the plight against inequality is just as much culpable as anyone else (not just regarding race, but regarding class in her relationship with Henry) then the message coming across becomes seriously convoluted. At this stage I feel Lee’s editor was right: when told in an opinionated and judgemental adult voice, rather than the innocent voice of a child, the message Lee was aiming for became lost amongst a sea of angry opinions and people refusing to change their minds on old views. With the novel stinking of petty racism and hypocrisy in its views over inequality, I did begin to question the sincerity of Lee’s preachings in her classic, given the two were written only two years apart. One thing that is evident from ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is that it was a draft that, back in the 1950s, did not deserve publishing. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is proof that Lee can indeed develop characters and write well, but from the undeveloped, problematic characters and poorly formulated prose demonstrated here, this book was in no way able to show Lee’s talents, and for that reason I question whether it was really right to publish it, and especially to hype it up as a sequel.

Looking at ‘Go Set a Watchman’ independently from its ties to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (and bearing in mind that it came beforehand), it simply did not make a strong novel. For a start, nothing really happens. The novel’s biggest problem is a complete lack of storyline. It takes 102 pages of the 279 page long novel for the issue of racism to enter the fold, and the vast majority of the book is padded out with childhood stories similar to those told in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the difference being that those stories fitted in the timescale of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, whereas the childhood memories recounted here are largely just random remembrances which seem completely irrelevant to the actual story. In terms of plot, it is very thin on the ground even after the themes of racism have been established. Summed up briefly, Jean-Louise finds out that her father and lover had attended a meeting preaching racist messages, and she becomes disillusioned to the godlike status she had attributed to her father, before ranting and raving about her views and debating how her home is no longer the place it was. This plot, while to an extent interesting, is by no means enough to sustain a 300-odd page long novel with nothing else to back it up (especially when it takes 100 pages for the aforementioned plot to begin) and it became very boring, very quickly. Besides this, while Scout’s obnoxious and self-assured nature was endearing reading about her as an eight-year-old, seeing the same attitude from a 26-year-old makes for a very frustrating character. Jean-Louise’s perpetual poor treatment of her aunt, unwillingness to sympathise with others’ points of view (despite acting as a preacher for equality) and miniature tantrums when things are not going her way do not in any way endear her to readers. Alongside the simply unpleasant Alexandra, the bizarre Atticus and the far-too-poetic Uncle Jack, the cast of characters is weak. With no Jem or Dill except for in flashbacks, the only character I could really stand, Henry, is treated like dirt by Jean-Louise in a relationship that still continues to confuse me. Simply put, I could not engage in this novel’s plot or characters at all.

Whichever way I look at ‘Go Set a Watchman’, I come to the conclusion that it is a weak novel. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Do I find its history and development interesting? Yes. Did I enjoy the novel itself?  A resounding no.

Follow me on Twitter @emmathereader, Tumblr (www.snapeisourprince.tumblr.com) and Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/snapeisourprince).

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