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.

 

One-Book Wonder

The Secret HistoryI’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned The Secret History in this past year, including on this very blog. I’ve pondered whether to re-read or not to re-read (that was the question). I’ve also talked about discovering that my favourite black-covered copy was missing and how this discovery was, in part, what led me to a no-more-loaning-out-of-books Scrooge-like snap. And, on various occasions and for various reasons, I’ve talked about the book in many a face-to-face and Facebook-enacted discussion.

While I’m normally wary of re-visiting already read books, I felt compelled to break this rule with The Secret History for a few reasons:

1. Although I remembered that I loved, loved, loved this book, I am ashamed to admit that I couldn’t actually remember much except that there were four students at a college, they were studying Latin, and the character called Bunny dies.

Those of you who haven’t yet read it can relax—I didn’t ruin the punchline; the book opens with Bunny’s death. Sadly, though, the Bunny part was the only part I got right. There were six students, not four—Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Bunny, and Richard, with the latter being the narrator. They were actually studying Ancient Greek (with a wee bit of Latin thrown in) at a university at Vermont, and none of the characters are quite what they seem.

2. I kept waxing lyrical about how profound and amazing and, like, life-changing this book was for me, and recommending that—nay, imploring—friends who hadn’t yet read it to go out and do so immediately (note that I didn’t offer to loan them my copy, which I’d begrudgingly bought to replace the missing one).

The Secret HistoryYet in spite of these strong commendations, I couldn’t actually recall any of the profound-ness of the prose. It was elusive and, as I recalled, depressingly clever in both a cultural reference sense and in a complexity of the understanding of language and human nature. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that it was too clever, to the point of, well, literary wankery.

Indeed, the revisit read reminded me of just how smart Donna Tartt, the author, is. And how intimidating it was to know that this was her first book. Her mastery of the Greek and the seamlessness with which she paints and fleshes out highly intelligent, sometimes-likeable, sometimes-abhorrent characters, and then deftly has their storylines overlap with devastating and gripping consequences is breathtaking. The Secret History is a brilliant piece of fiction and my initial obsession with it was accurate, but I now also realise that its denseness and intellectual bent means that it’s not a book I could read to a casual reader.

I discovered The Secret History when it was either set on a university course I took or was listed as a strong writing influence by a guest lecturer and writer whom I greatly admired. While my memory of precisely how I came to buy it is a little hazy, I know that once I had the book in my hands, I simply devoured it. My friend Carody had it recommended to her while she was studying in London by a friend who described it as the kind of book you’d be so engrossed in you’d miss your tube stop. It’s an incredibly apt description, and quite fitting that it’s also available in the $10 Penguin Modern Classic format, which was devised by Sir Allen Lane while waiting for a train.

The Little Friend3. The final reason I re-read The Secret History is because it didn’t make sense to me that two books by the same author could be so vastly different in readability, engagement, and critical and commercial success. The Secret History is upheld and applauded by everyone who’s encountered it. The Little Friend, Tartt’s follow-up and only other book, is universally deplored. I can’t tell you what the storyline is because I couldn’t get through the book; nor could anyone else I know. It was panned by critics and lay readers alike, I guess, partly because it’s rubbish, and partly because The Secret History raised our expectations of Tartt’s writing prowess to unrepeatable, nosebleed-high heights. Hers was Second Book Syndrome on steroids.

There were something like 10 years between publication of The Secret History and The Little Friend and we haven’t read hide nor hair from Tartt since the latter bombed. I don’t know whether she’s working on something new or whether she’s retreated to lick her wounds (I suspect a little of both), but I don’t expect to see much from her any time soon.

To Kill A MockingbirdNow, though I’ve resolved whether The Secret History is as good as I remember it (however hazily) to be, the question that remains is whether it’s better to be a one-book wonder or to publish more decent-but-not-exceptional books regularly? Harper Lee only ever published one book, the outstanding and groundbreaking To Kill A Mockingbird. Tartt’s tried a second and failed. Will she try a third? And if so, will it be third time (as) lucky (and stellar as the first)?

Best-Known Book, Least-Known Author

To Kill A MockingbirdSunday marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the best-known books written by one of the least-known authors. I’m talking To Kill A Mockingbird and Harper Lee, respectively.

Selling 30 million copies in those 50 years—a figure that most writers could only fantasise about—To Kill A Mockingbird is the one book that most of us have read, even if we’re not readers. In fact, I think it’s one of those rare books that has won the hearts of everyone who’s read it (or even cheated and just watched the Oscar-winning film which stars Gregory Peck). Certainly few characters’ names are as memorable as Scout, Boo Radley, or Atticus Finch. And who could forget the timeless saying that you can never truly understand another person until you walk in their shoes?

If for some reason you haven’t read it (and if you haven’t, I’d like to know how), To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of lawyer Atticus Finch who defends a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white woman in America’s deep (and at that time dangerous) south. Told through the eyes of Atticus’ tomboy daughter, Scout, it addresses themes of racism that are as salient today as they were when the book was first published. Perhaps sadly so—a sign that while African Americans may not be lynched in public anymore, the racism that drives such actions still exists and has merely shifted form and focus.

To Kill A Mockingbird is Lee’s one and only novel, which intrigues me deeply. As writers (and I don’t for a moment consider myself anywhere near her league), we are compelled to write regardless of the possible pain or failure it involves. The thought that we might only have one book in us is vaguely disturbing, although the flip side of that is that I don’t think any writer would complain if their sole book was the hallowed, transcending To Kill A Mockingbird.

Consolingly, although the book reads effortlessly, its writing wasn’t effortless at all. Lee worked menial jobs, such as being an airline reservation clerk, while she struggled to complete it. It was with a little help of friends who put up enough cash to enable her to quit her job and work on it fulltime, as well as the guidance of a skilled editor, that helped smooth her vignettes into the groundbreaking book To Kill A Mockingbird became.

But beyond the book that speaks volumes, we know almost nothing about Lee. Some writers actively court a mysterious, elusive persona. Lee withdrew around the mid-‘60s simply because she wasn’t interested in the attention and is so reclusive that I have to admit I didn’t until recently realise that she is actually still alive (youch).

Has she written another book or books? Probably. Clearly she doesn’t consider them to be publishable and is sticking with no sequel over a sub-standard one—as she reportedly once said, ‘When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.’ Such restraint takes a lot of courage and the requests and pressures to follow up with a second book must have been—and must still be—enormous.

Do I itch to know more about Lee in this, a time when we’re used to being able to read and hear what our writers and celebrities think and do and wear at almost every hour of the day? Of course. But I also respect her ability to—as perhaps writers should—let her book speak for itself and ensure that she will remain, and will eventually go out, on top.

The closest I’ll get to knowing Lee is through her one masterpiece and I’m kind of ok with that. Something tells me I will be, along with millions of others, ploughing through To Kill A Mockingbird’s pages on Sunday, both celebrating 50 years since its publication and trying to gain some insight about its writer.

CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK: Tempany Deckert

As a kid growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Melbourne, children’s books were my sanctuary.

They were the closest group of friends an isolated girl could ask for. They provided me with reassurance and inspiration whenever loneliness got the better of me. The Magic Faraway Tree gave me hope that sheep, snakes and chooks weren’t my only friends. If I looked hard enough, I could find magical lands, pixies, sprites and a cavalcade of fun friends. Came Back To Show You I Could Fly taught me all about city kids and the harmful affects of drug and alcohol abuse, So Much To Tell You showcased bravery and finding your own voice, and The Secret Seven surrounded me with the close-knit group of friends that I’d always pined for. To Kill A Mockingbird transported me to a faraway land called America that as an adult I now call home. 

So, not surprisingly, the books I’ve written all deal with isolated kids trying to find connection in the world too. I hope they provide kids with warmth, comfort, and a trusted friend when there’s no one else to turn to. The Fashion Police are two shy teen girls who manage to generate new friends and acceptance when they design cool clothes for their peer group. Radio Rebels are a bunch of kids in a small country town who challenge the status quo when they start up a youth radio station. But my new young adult novel, ITS YR LIFE, portrays two teens from vastly different worlds that discover that friendship knows no bounds when push comes to shove. 

If it weren’t for children’s books, my childhood could have been a very lonely one. But instead, I was surrounded with a slew of positive and inspiring peers. The fact that they were fictional made no difference. In my child’s mind those characters were possibly even more authentic than the real people that surrounded me. For that reason, I love children’s books and I feel very lucky to be able to create new ones.