You’d have to have been living under a metaphorical rock not to have heard about the July 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. It was one of the most anticipated literary releases of recent years, coming 54 years after the publication of the author’s only other published work: the modern day classic and Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird.
As a fan and frequent re-reader of Mockingbird, I confess I awaited Watchman with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. There was a lot of controversy and speculation before the book was even published. Had the famously reclusive Miss Lee, now 89 years old, living in an assisted-living centre in Monroeville, Alabama, and virtually blind and profoundly deaf, properly consented to the publication? And why now, after so many decades of refusing to publish again? Was she being taken advantage of by those trusted to guard her affairs? Is Watchman’s publication one of the most “epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing”, as the New York Times so bluntly called it? Much has been written on the subject and I would suggest you hunt out some interesting articles in Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications, if the background intrigues you.
But, controversy and hype aside, how is the book? Actually, it’s not bad. That might sound like rather a back-handed compliment but it’s fitting. Mere days after the book’s 14 July publication, there were countless reviews labeling Watchman everything from “a failure as a novel” (The New Yorker) to “a good first draft” (The Independent). It all made this Mockingbird fan very nervous indeed. So it came as a pleasant surprise that I liked Watchman more than I had expected.
Watchman is, in a way, a sequel to Mockingbird, dealing as it does with the now all-grown-up Jean Louise Finch, formerly known as Scout, at the age of twenty-six, returning to her childhood home. However, it is also, in a way, a prequel, written as it was seven years prior to Mockingbird. (Editors dismissed Watchman and asked Lee to go back and try again, focusing more on the Scout character in her innocent childhood.)
Watchman sees Jean Louise returning to Maycomb to visit her father, our beloved Atticus Finch, after several years living in New York. The title of the new book comes from a Bible verse (Isaiah 21:6) in which the prophet is urged to set up a watchman to report back on what he sees – and what she sees is not entirely pleasant. The town of Maycomb is just as segregated and cruelly racist as when we last encountered it. But the surprise, and this requires no “spoiler alert” because it’s been much discussed in the media, is that our heroic Atticus (and how many of you are not picturing Gregory Peck at this very moment?) is an unapologetic old racist who condones the views of segregationists.
Hearts all over the reading world were broken by the revelation that Atticus, for so long placed on a pedestal and declared by the court of public opinion to be a beacon of justice and racial equality, is flawed and shockingly human. As a reader, you can’t help but empathise with Jean Louise’s heartache.
“The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart, he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”
The book has many flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, with events that will be at least familiar to Mockingbird readers. These passages are much more enjoyable to read and it’s easy to understand why Lee’s editor encouraged her to refocus her book on this earlier period. Watchman is good. It’s not great. What it is, however, is interesting. It is a fascinating living example of the role of a brilliant editor and how a fairly good draft can be reshaped into something spectacular.
But ultimately perhaps the old adage is right, for readers and for grown-up Scout – and you can’t go home again.
Review by Tiffany Matsis
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Published by William Heinemann Ltd.