15 Jul 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

 Go Set a Watchman by Harper LeeRelease Date: 14th June 2015
Publisher: William Heinemann
Page Count: 288
Format: Hardcover | Purchased

Synopsis (from GR): Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

My thoughts: This book is incredibly hard for me to review for a number of reasons. Despite being marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird... it's not really. Harper Lee submitted Go Set a Watchman to her publisher, who then suggested that she write the story from a child's perspective. This leads to so many questions: did Harper Lee change her characterisation of Atticus in between writing Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, or was Atticus always a racist? If he was always racist, did I just not notice because To Kill a Mockingbird was filled with childhood idealism, and I just idolised Atticus in the same way Scout did? Am I only noticing because Go Set a Watchman focuses more with the disillusionment of adulthood? Or does this not matter because there is a very high probability that Go Set a Watchman was never intended to see the light of day? After finishing this novel, I'm leaning more towards the last possibility.

Going into this book, I was terrified I was going to be biased in my rating. Like so many others, I list To Kill a Mockingbird as one of my favourites. I was afraid that I wouldn't be rating this book on its own merits, but rather because I love its predecessor so dearly.

After reading this book, I felt pretty similarly to how I felt after finishing Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy. The characterisation was off, the plot... questionable, and a perfectly good book had been ruined by its successor. The entire plot can be summarised in a single sentence: Scout learns that her father is not the man she thought he was, but she decides to love him anyway. I think what drove me through Go Set a Watchman was my understanding of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, but this novel lacks all the charm, personality, humour, and richness of the latter. Lee's prose is beautiful and captures Maycomb wonderfully - but the writing slips clumsily between first and third person, or past and present tense. While I could forgive a lack of continuity with Mockingbird - because I don't think Lee had any agency in the publication of this book - I cannot forgive the lack of continuity within the book itself. This book needed either a) tighter editing, or b) not to be published at all (and I say that as someone who adores To Kill a Mockingbird and has read it almost as often as she has Harry Potter).

And so we come to the hardest part of Go Set a Watchman: Atticus' racist attitude. Racism is placed centre stage in Go Set a Watchman, as the story takes place around the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which I believe ended segregation in the U.S. Scout may be slightly more progressive than her father, but both Atticus and Scout dislike the NAACP and believe that the Federal Government has no right to be interfering in the business of states. As To Kill a Mockingbird was told from the perspective of a child, it was easier to conceal both Atticus' and Scout's racist, problematic views. I think the worst part of Scout's views is that she insists that she cannot live with a hypocrite - but that is what she is. In one scene, Scout tells her uncle that although she thinks black people should have the same opportunities white people do, it's not like she'll marry one of them (as if that's a completely irrational thought that no sane person would think).

One scene that pulled me in was the scene where Scout confronts her father - but her uncle Jack slaps her so hard that she bleeds and told that she is a bigot (which she is, but not for the reasons that uncle Jack states). Scout is forced to submit to the whims and opinions of elder white men. Scout concedes - she decides to accept her relatives for who they are and what they stand for, because they are white people of good breeding.  Go Set a Watchman put To Kill a Mockingbird in an entirely new light for me, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to love it the same way ever again.


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