Go Set A Watchman

Watch

Author: Harper Lee

Finished on: 18 July 2015

Where did I get this book: My husband bought this for me from the supermarket on 18 July. And it’s testament to how much this blog, and the endeavour behind it, means to me, that my first feeling was guilt at buying a new book. But he insisted it’s fine for him to buy one for me, as long as I haven’t asked for it!

The first thing to say is “Phew!” We needn’t have worried. It is really good. Really really good.

At about 2pm on Sunday, when it was handed to me, I said goodbye to my family, and the rest of the world, for the remainder of the afternoon. And by 8pm I had finished. Sobbing. Worn out. But really happy that I’d read it, and happy that this book was published.

It’s worth saying that this has been a fantastic event to live through. We thought that we would never get to read anything more by the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, the incredible classic that so many people have loved for fifty-five years. And yet here it is. And it has been shocking, been exciting, been controversial, been emotional. I’d be surprised to hear anyone say that the book is a dying medium for a while.

The relationship between Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird is a unique one, to my knowledge. It’s definitely not a sequel, because events that happened in Mockingbird are different. Atticus is different. And Scout is different.

And while there are a few passages that are lifted almost word for word, presumably from this into what later became Mockingbird, it can’t be accurately described as an earlier draft either. The story and focus are completely different. It seems to me that this was a family, and a town, that lived inside Lee’s mind for a long time, and she played with different stories, different situations, different nuances to the characters. These books are two examples of what came out. It reminds me of Picasso and his guitars.

It is amazing to think that this was written first, because the way it challenges you is just perfect to this situation – an unexpected book published over fifty years after its predecessor, that brings a completely different, and seemingly pretty horrible, spin to one of the most well-loved characters in the history of fiction. But it really is as if that were planned. It is as if Lee has looked at the way people feel about Atticus, and tackled this head on. As she says of Scout says at one point:

Before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious

‘What Would Atticus Do?’ is a phrase you can buy on endless car stickers, mugs etc these days – as I say, amazing that this was written first (although not sure how sales of these items will go now). The journey that Scout goes through in this story is the same as the one the reader goes through – it is scary, it is challenging, but ultimately it has a wonderful message of self-empowerment.

Yes, not to put too finer point on it, in this story Atticus is a prick – but the way Lee tells it makes that okay. None of the goodness, the fairness or the bravery are lost. It’s like taking the stabilisers off a bike: afterwards, you just have to balance for yourself.

I have read a few critics that say this is a book that needs a couple of edits, and I disagree on this point. The book I read after Death On The Nile, and have yet to write about because of all this Lee excitement taking over, was Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, and one of the things I enjoyed about that was its meandering. I have a soft spot for books that are less than tightly plotted. We don’t need to be in such a hurry all the time. While there is undoubtedly something impressive about a book where every word advances the plot, nothing superfluous, I’m not sure that they’re the most enjoyable to read.

Lee does have a tendency to tell as well as show in this book. We know how Scout feels about the revelations about Atticus’s changed character: she runs away and vomits up her lunch. It is surplus to requirements to then describe her internal monologue in great detail. But even this I don’t mind. Who says you should just show, and not tell too?

There is one heart breaking moment in this book which I can’t stop thinking about. Racial tensions in Maycomb have grown much worse since Scout’s previous visit, and when she goes to see her beloved Calpurnia, the lady who took care of her throughout her childhood, taught her about sex, about periods, in many ways took the role of substitute mother, this is the saddest scene in the whole story.

Calpurnia was wearing her company manners

Scout is unable to break through the mistrust and the barriers between them, and it is horrible. This moment so poignantly captures the invisible walls between people, that keep us from being honest, genuine and vulnerable with each other. Between Scout and Calpurnia, the huge and complex issue of race, and racism, is insurmountable. Two people who love each other. At least when Scout is disagreeing with pretty much everybody else in the whole story, there is honesty. Anger, hurt, disbelief, confrontation. But they are showing themselves to each other; being real. Which means there is hope. Company manners are the worst thing, because there is no hope of reconciliation.

But there is hope at the end of this book – and I would love to know what happens next. If only there were a sequel.

Advertisements

12 comments

  1. Excellent review, perceptive and insighful. I still think this manuscript should not have been published though. It should have been left with her other papers to be examined and studied by academics. Mockingbird, the masterpiece that we love and cherish, would never have been without this first draft and a good editor!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, we’ll agree to disagree on that! I think the publication of this book has been completely brilliant, both because of the insight into Mockingbird, and the fact that it’s an awesome read in itself. It’s way more than a first draft.

      Like

  2. Okay…wow. First let me say that I think I agreed with every thought and emotion you shared. I had exactly the same feelings. Every single one of them. I think, as you commented to my review, that we may have taken away a little something different from the ending, and I can’t help but wonder if some of that might be attributed to the different types of empathy we experienced based upon where we grew up. I grew up in a more southern state and I’ve “felt” some of the same things Scout felt upon returning home. Maybe that’s why I “understood” Atticus a little better. “Excuse” him wouldn’t be the right word, but “understood” might sum it up. What about you? Where are you from?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am from Yorkshire in the UK – so a world away! It was the scene where he explains why he’s taking the case that made me think, ok you’re cynical, calculating and you have no faith in people. I know there were suggestions elsewhere that he wanted to understand the ‘real’ racists better which was why he was spending time with them – but that scene where he says take it so the NAACP don’t get in on the act was the killer for me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah – that was one of the earlier scenes and it really disturbed me, too…until he explained it further in the last chapters.

        I’m not sure I agree with Atticus, but I think his motives are more altruistic than Henry/Hank’s. As soon as I understood his reasoning for it, I knew that there could never be any real respect there any longer.

        All in all, though (and much to my surprise), I’d have to rank this book as a whole rather high on my list. Not necessarily because the story was so great, though I enjoyed it. But because there were so many really incredibly thought-provoking elements.

        Like

  3. Good thoughts. I agree, the scene with Cal was perhaps the most heartbreaking in the book. And I do wonder what will happen to all the “What Would Atticus Do?” merchandise. I still love him as a character, but he’s sort of been toppled as a moral paragon now…

    Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier btw! I love finding good book reviews, so I’ll check out some of your other stuff too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] When Go Set A Watchman was published, and there was a lot of sneering commentary around on the strength of readers’ feelings about Atticus Finch, I reread To Kill A Mockingbird and in my review reflected on the importance of fictional characters, not just to me personally, but as role models and companions to so many people. I lost respect for several journalists at that time because of their failure to understand that fictional characters live, and make a big old difference to the world, through the people who read and love them. […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s