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.