Sunday 19 July 2015
Book Review: Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee
A young woman takes the overnight train home to Maycomb, Alabama, for the first time in many years. Before she arrives, she makes sure to dress in slacks, in part to scandalise her aunt, in part because they are the clothes that make her feel most like herself when she returns home. The woman is Jean Louise Finch, once known as Scout, the narrator and heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird. In many ways, Maycomb is the same, but in other ways it has changed. It is the 1950s, and times are changing. Racial tensions are high, with talk of desegregation, which meets with resistance among the white members of the community. Jean Louise's homecoming is bittersweet. Maycomb is home, with all the memories of her childhood; her boyfriend is here, and her father, although her brother Jem is dead now, and Atticus is older, more creaky, but still the wise, quietly witty, respectably subversive lawyer. And Jean Louise will never see eye-to-eye with her Aunt Alexandra, and she no longer quite feels that she fits in at her hometown. There are shocks in store for Jean Louise, and everything she has previously taken for granted comes crashing down around her.
Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and, although it works as a sequel, being a completely new story, the elements which later evolved into the classic are visible in another form. Harper Lee brings the humour and warmth that readers will instantly recognise from Mockingbird, the same wry observation and understated wit. Jean Louise is older, but the tomboy child is never far from the surface, and Atticus, though he may seem serious, has a dry wit of his own.
The prose is inconsistent in quality; less polished than in Mockingbird, a weird combination of dry exposition and presumption that the reader to has a little more contemporary political knowledge than I had half a century later. Go Set a Watchman is character-driven, without a big major plot event such as the trial at the heart of To Kill A Mockingbird. As such, I felt it a bit less engrossing, a series of events and flashbacks, and wondering what the actual story was going to be. But when it's good, it really shines. Some lines of dialogue or description had me laughing aloud. (People who grew up in a certain kind of church will know exactly which hymn is being described as "bloodthirsty.") The characters walk onto the page fully-formed, and it's easy to forget that it was their first appearance on paper. Scout is as lovable, passionate, outrageous and unconventional as a woman as she was as a girl, a person who transcends ink and paper. The flashbacks to Scout's childhood and teenage years were very funny, as was the scene at Jean Louise's "coffee," and the way snippets of conversation from one-time acquaintances came together to be faintly ridiculous.
It doesn't really feel fair to compare the novels, except to observe how Harper Lee took the good elements of Go Set a Watchman and made them great. The change in narration from third person (Watchman) to Scout's first person (Mockingbird) brings you closer into the world, and the way that events run together in the latter, with a mixture of childish imagination and adult reality, build a complete child's view of the world out of the fragments of memory presented in Watchman.
Go Set A Watchman covers similar themes to those at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird, of race, and justice, family, an end of innocence and Right and Wrong with capital letters. But Right and Wrong are more complex here; it is a more adult novel and leaves you, the reader, conflicted. Because here, Atticus Finch, Defender of Good and Right, a man with a sense of justice beyond his time, is wary of the changing of the times, and stands against the desegregation of the races in the South, attending meetings alongside hateful, bigoted people and condoning them with his silence.
The confrontation and conversation at the end of the book would be powerful and upsetting enough were these characters we'd met for the first time a couple of hundred pages back. With the weight of half a century behind it, however, and with literature bearing Atticus' reputation for more than twice as long as Jean Louise's twenty six years, I too felt that sense of betrayal and hurt, all the worse because Atticus remains in character throughout. His arguments against desegregation are calm, reasoned and thoughtful - and awful and wrong. It's hard to reconcile some of the terrible things he says with the man who has been long considered a hero, and I'll be posting a whole separate essay about that issue in the next day or two. There is a time when the bitterness of the rift between Jean Louise and Atticus seem impossible to get past.
Yet Go Set a Watchman ends on a note of hope and reconciliation. It has become necessary for Jean Louise to smash the idol she'd made of her father, in order to live by her own conscience, to fight battles because she knows them to be right, not to accept that everything Atticus says or does is good and right. Without wishing in any way to downplay or defend his beliefs and words, he is, for the most part, a good man, with strong morals, and a good father. The lessons she learned from him as a child and young woman set her up well for life. But he is still a man, and he is still flawed. It's as true for the reader as it is for Jean Louise; we come of age alongside her. Heroes will only lead us so far. Ultimately, we must become our own heroes.
Go Set A Watchman is not as wonderful a novel as To Kill A Mockingbird, but it was never going to be. It's a patchy, but pretty good, literary novel of its time; darker and more nuanced than its sister novel. It's interesting to compare the complex adult morality to the simple black and white of a child's understanding. Is it essential reading? Not in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is, but Go Set a Watchman is an interesting piece of literature, more than a first draft, but not quite a sequel, to be read thoughtfully with a critical mind.