Go Set A Watchman promised to be the literary event of the year, if not the decade. As soon as it was announced that a new novel by Harper Lee had been found, the book-loving world went crazy and there was a huge build up. The interest seemed to die down remarkably quickly after publication though, which unfortunately may be an accurate indictment on the book.
The new release follows Scout, now 26, returning home to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her family – the much-admired Atticus, and her Aunt Alexandra. Her brother Jem is dead and race relations are running high. Scout, now known by her proper name Jean Louise, struggles to comprehend the involvement of her father and sort-of boyfriend, Henry Clinton, in a racist Citizens’ Council.
Unfortunately, the book is rather slower and less compelling than To Kill A Mockingbird. Despite some fascinating insights into the world of America’s South in the 1950s, things plod along after Jean Louise’s discovery – she reaches a better understanding of her family, her town and the world around her but there is little drama or development of interest outside her personal thoughts and conversations.
However as purely a character study it is undeniably compelling; as Jean Louise discovers that her father is not the perfect hero she always believed, we dig into each of their psyches and explore how a person’s beliefs are formed.
The timing is also uncanny, coinciding as it has with recent events in America surrounding police brutality and the deaths of black people which have inspired strong protests. There is food for thought in Go Set A Watchman that people nowadays could still learn from.
Henry Clinton, or Hank, is a delight, bringing some character and easy comedy into Jean Louise’s world and their relationship is one to behold with repeated almost rejections from Scout and a harsh dressing down for him later on.
The real pleasure throughout is the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, allowing us to fill in the gaps of her life and find out the key events we miss in the gap in the books’ timeline. Anecdotes such as her getting her first period, believing she is pregnant, and going to a school dance with Henry give a further glimpse of how brilliant Lee’s writing could be.
It is obviously an extremely unusual scenario to release a sequel to a classic book so many years later and even stranger that it was actually written first.
But the fact that Lee reportedly would only allow the book to be published unedited has resulted in some undesirable things, such as verbatim passages from To Kill A Mockingbird being essentially republished. There is no need for these background notes on Maycomb county to be told again in almost the exact same words and it is distracting to the loyal reader, especially one who has just re-read the older book in preparation for the new release.
Equally, a little editing would have created a more consistent world, as some timings around Scout and Jem’s childhood clash slightly with what we are told in To Kill A Mockingbird, which is jarring.
I do not want to wade into the controversy over whether Lee was taken advantage of in the publishing of this book, especially as I have read compelling arguments from both sides and we will likely never know unless the author herself or a member of her close family speaks out.
But although it is not such a successful book in itself as its predecessor, Go Set A Watchman is a welcome addition to the world and legacy of Scout and Atticus Finch in the guise of a tale of consciousness, personal beliefs and the self.