Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Like many people, I loved To Kill A Mockingbird and have recently re-read it with one of my daughters who is studying it at school. I also saw a wonderful stage adaptation earlier this year. It is full memorable characters: Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley and of course Atticus Finch. It has been well documented since this book came out that Atticus is not portrayed as the tolerant, fair person he is in To Kill a Mockingbird. For this reason, I was a bit apprehensive to start reading Go Set A Watchman as I didn’t want my idea of Atticus to be spoiled.

Initially, reading this book is like reading any sequel. You quickly become caught up with what the well-known characters are doing now (and there is one huge shock early on!), finding out what has happened to them since we last read about them and Maycomb County is such a familiar setting that you almost don’t have to think about it. But of course, this book isn’t a sequel. It was written before TKAM and was never intended as a sequel. It is difficult to read it without thinking of the previous events in TKAM and bringing with you the knowledge you have of the characters from that book. Would Harper Lee have written it this way if it was a sequel? I like to think she probably wouldn’t, given the success of the first book and the huge amount of affection for its characters. Then again, she authorised its publication so perhaps this version of her characters is what was in her mind all along. Would she have written To Kill A Mockingbird had this been accepted and published first? Who can say and for that reason I’m glad this was rejected first time round!

The star of the book is Jean Louise, Scout. I really enjoyed getting to know the principled young woman she has become as well as reading about some episodes from her teenage years. Knowing her as a feisty young girl, it is not surprising that she has grown up a woman with her own strong opinions and beliefs which she is not willing to compromise. Her uncle Jack says, “You’re colour blind Jean Louise…..You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like……… You see only people.”

So yes like Scout, or Jean Louise as she is in this book, I was hugely disillusioned with Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. I felt her anger and disbelief that this man who she regarded as a paragon was perhaps not as virtuous as she had believed as a child. It is difficult to read about the attitudes which were prevailing in the South at the time and even the attempts by Uncle Jack, Atticus’ brother, to explain how things were just don’t fit well with the Atticus we knew before. I didn’t feel he was as completely racist as he has been painted in some other reviews but on the other hand, is it possible to be ‘a bit’ racist? There is some tolerance and understanding but I expected a different Atticus, championing equality as he grew older.

If you are undecided about reading this book I would say go for it. I didn’t come away from the book hating Atticus – he’s not a character you could hate – although I was disappointed in him, he’s not the hero I thought. But perhaps, like Jean Louise, we all need to see that people aren’t as perfect as we may think we we are young. I enjoyed the book and it hasn’t put me off To Kill A Mockingbird, perhaps just given a bit more insight into society of the time.

A final thought – I can’t help thinking the world would be a happier place if we could all see each other as Jean Louise does: ‘only people’.

Go Set a Watchman was published by William Heinemann on 14 July 2015 ans is also available as an ebook. The paperback is due to be released in March 2016. You can order a copy of the Kindle edition here: Go Set a Watchman

Book description

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one’s own conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humour and effortless precision – a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to a classic.

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