IBN: 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
So here it is: my inevitable review of the most anticipated book for years. I had told myself I wouldn’t be buying ‘Go Set a Watchman’ but eventually couldn’t resist being sucked in by the hype (as well as the cheap Amazon prices). I was reluctant to start reading the book due to some mixed reviews; furthermore I didn’t want to ruin my view of Lee’s earlier masterpiece ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Billed as a draft version of Mockingbird rather than a sequel, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was actually written in the 1950s- before its famous relative. The events it depicts take place twenty years after the ones seen in Mockingbird, with our heroine Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch now aged 26 and using her christian name. The novel focuses on how she deals with discovering her beloved father Atticus and potential fiancé Henry actually harbour racist views.
Seeing Jean Louise all grown-up does add something to the book and definitely brings something new to the story of the Finches as a whole. As a fan of Mockingbird, it was a relief to see the character is still opinionated and has retained her strong morals. It is further endearing to see she is still boyish in nature, making her character seem more ‘approachable’. In many ways, her strong values mean she has taken over Atticus’ role as the moral compass of the tale.
And now to address what I shall refer to as ‘the elephant in the review’- Atticus’ racism. Various reviews and newspapers have cited this as the ruin of the book- how could the moralistic Atticus we know and love from Mockingbird be a bigot? Despite my love of the Mockingbird depiction of Atticus, I personally didn’t find his racism particularly disappointing. That being said, I had been warned of it in advance. Before his changed stance on the race issue comes to light Atticus really is just an older version of his former self. Moreover, flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood alongside her brother Jem indicate that Lee always intended Atticus to be a role-model for his children as seen in Mockingbird. It is later implied that the older Atticus has developed his racist views because he does not see ‘negroes’ as being intellectually advanced enough to enjoy the privilege normally reserved for white people. Whilst this view is obviously abhorrent, it should be considered that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was written before the Atticus who strived for equality in Mockingbird was created. In my opinion, the only thing some reviewers have not been able to comprehend is that Jean Louise is now the Finch who demands fair treatment for the black population.
Another issue several reviewers have commented on is the lack of character development. This can be said of some characters, although some old favourites like Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack are still the same as in Mockingbird. The two characters who felt most underdeveloped were Henry and Calpurnia. Before his racist views came to light, Henry seemed to be a kindly if a little bland choice for Jean Louise. Calpurnia simply served the purpose of dismissing her kindly advances so she could observe the racial tensions present in her hometown. Both Henry and Calpurnia were definitely underused, Jem’s death was skirted over rather than discussed in depth and Dill was simply dismissed as ‘in Italy’.
One thing I loved about ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was that its narrative, despite being in the third person, is still classic Lee. Fans of Mockingbird will know her style instantly. Shortly after writing this novel in the 1950s, Lee was told by a publisher that the best part of her story was the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood. Said publisher then requested she write the children’s story, a tale which evolved into Mockingbird. It is fascinating to read this book and see how it became the story we all know and love. It is obvious that Lee incorporated her strongest characters into Mockingbird. It is hard not to compare the book to its famous predecessor, however it really should be admired in its own right rather than just as an extension of the Mockingbird story. One of my only criticisms is that, whilst I appreciate it is a draft novel, I feel Lee could have changed some statements that flatly contradict the events of Mockingbird.
The issue of racism is definitely dealt with in a much more blunt manner than in Mockingbird. We are given just a few chapters to begin adjusting to the novel before the subject is broached and thus remains present for the duration of the novel. The story is quite political, touching on many of the segregation and NAACP-based issues that were relevant at the time of writing and providing an insight into how many people in real-life Maycombs probably felt. My one problem with this was that some conversations about politics/history would make no sense to anyone not from the American Deep South.
As a whole, nothing major happens in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ yet it is never boring. The book isn’t as good as Mockingbird but isn’t that far off, and I’m not saying that simply because it says ‘Harper Lee’ on its cover. It serves as a hard-hitting reminder that time does pass, often turning those we love into people we thought they’d never become. Anyone can sympathise with Jean Louise as she realises how heavily racism has infiltrated both her childhood home and the minds of her loved ones.
Rating: ****.5 (4.5/5)
‘Every man’s watchman, Jean Louise, every man’s island, is his conscience’.