Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

9781785150289The book everyone is talking about. The book no one thought they would ever see. Fifty Five years after To Kill A Mockingbird we have a sequel….

Firstly I think it is really important to remember the context of this book while reading it. This book was written before To Kill A Mockingbird. Before all its success, before the film, before we all mythologized it’s characters and it’s meaning. Go Set A Watchman has not been edited in anyway since the manuscript was found and was written in mid-1950s America; a time, place and society facing great change and upheaval.

But in saying all that it is pretty hard to escape the shadow of the book that was published first. To Kill A Mockingbird is held up as a beacon in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, despite it being set in the 1930s. But it’s message of equal rights is a powerful one, not just across racial lines but class ones as well. It is one of the few books taught in school that resonates with nearly every child who has to read it and still means something to them years later. But there is a danger in that too. The idealism of youth, the putting of someone on a pedestal to represent all that we believe in. And it is this danger that is at the heart of Go Set A Watchman.

I fell instantly in love with this book though. Having done a re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation I instantly fell into step with the voice of Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. At 26 years old the character we already know is all there, which makes sense because this is the same character, at the same point, who narrates To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise is returning home from New York for her annual trip to Maycomb County. A lot has changed since we were last in Maycomb. The Second World War has changed the entire country but recent Supreme Court decisions mean there are great ramifications on the horizon for The South. Jean Louise returns to a home she doesn’t quite recognize, the place and the people. When she begins to also doubt those people closest to her, her whole sense of self and the world around her she thought she knew and could depend on starts to shift on it’s axis.

As the reader this sense of tilted axis comes earlier than it does for Scout. Because the book was written before To Kill A Mockingbird there are details slightly out of place or missing. Jem’s fate is glossed over to begin with, which makes sense as this was written first, but in the context of the reader it feels slightly callous. The same with Dill. As Scout tries to come to terms with the hard truths she has discovered we flashback to Scout’s childhood and get to fill in the blanks of her growing up between the books and you can see why Harper Lee’s original editor suggested she flesh out the backstory the way she eventually did.

The heart of Go Set A Watchman though is the tearing down of ideals, shining examples that, while noble, are impossible to realize. I can totally understand why many readers are not prepared to have their view of To Kill A Mockingbird and it’s characters change and there is a point a third of the way into this book that totally broke my heart (Scout’s more so). But that is the underlying message of this book, that we do a disservice to what we believe in by putting our ideas or the people we want to represent our ideals up on a pedestal, above reproach. And while it takes great courage to stand up for what we believe in it also takes courage to understand every point of view and to challenge not only differing points of view but also our own.

Much has been made about how our idea of Atticus Finch is changed by this book. But our idea of Atticus Finch has already be changed over the last 55 years. We are more influenced by the idea of Atticus as played by Gregory Peck than by the character in the original book and he has become a folk hero above and beyond what he was ever intended to represent.

For me the character that has always captivated me was Scout. It was her innocence and honesty that drove the story of To Kill A Mockingbird home and it is her courage and dignity that give Go Set A Watchman it’s heart and compassion. For me she is the character we should admire and aspire to. She is not perfect, she does not conform to an ideal, but she is honest and true, stubborn and understanding.

In many ways Go Set A Watchman is a more confronting book than To Kill A Mockingbird. It is much more challenging in its ideas and the questions and answers it poses are not clear or easily digestible. It will divide opinions and we will be talking about this book for many months and many years to come. And isn’t that the real measure of a great book?

Buy the book here…

Re-Reading To Kill A Mockingbird

gosetawatchman

9781784752637In anticipation of the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman, (out July 14) I decided it was the perfect time for a re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t think I’ve read the book since high school and the movie is still so dominant in my mind so it was a great pleasure to revisit the text.

It is very easy to judge To Kill A Mockingbird against contemporary novels. The coming-of-age genre has increased exponentially as has the feisty, intelligent young heroine since it was published in 1960. The book is also heavy on the idealism with little room for subtlety. But is the novel’s context that makes it the enduring classic we all love. For its time and place it was, and still is, a very important novel. Mainly because the issues confronted in the novel in 1930s Alabama still exist today, around the world.

9781785150289We all know the novel is a book about our prejudices and it was really interesting to see how Harper Lee adds our prejudices to the story in increments. Firstly our prejudices based on money, class and poverty. Then our prejudices based on the unknown and how we believe in rumours, good and bad, to fill the void. And then finally our prejudices based on race and skin colour. As Scout learns from each of her experiences of these prejudices she is slowly introduced to the injustices of the world around her until she is finally confronted with how systematic these prejudices are entrenched in society and the true consequences of the injustice these prejudices create.

It is little wonder this books is almost compulsory reading for every high school student around the english-speaking world. There probably is a case that To Kill A Mockingbird would be considered a Young Adult novel if it was published today, a category which certainly did not exist in 1960, although I think it still stands as a novel for all readers to enjoy. It is the ultimate coming-of-age story because we wish our children to experience the same formation of the world that Scout does. And at the same time aspire to be on par with Atticus Finch, an almost a mythical character now, a literary moral compass.

To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel but it is a seminal work of 20th century literature which is why it is a novel that will endure for many decades and many generations still to come. I fell instantly back in step with Scout and Jim and the powerful ending with Boo Radley brought a tear to my eye once again.

I await Go Set A Watchman with equal parts excitement and trepidation.

Have you re-read To Kill A Mockingbird or are you planning to? Let us know your thoughts about revisiting this classic of 20th century literature.