Saturday, 8 August 2015

Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee UK book cover
This nearly didn't happen; I nearly didn't even purchase Go Set A Watchman. The release date kind of sprung up on me and I was still umming and ahhing the night before. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, and so I was torn between not wanting to ruin the book I adored, and the possibility that the new book could be amazing - Harper Lee did write this, after all, however long ago. I apologise to everybody to whom I agonised over this decision. I quite obviously did purchase this book and, what is perhaps more shocking, is that I actually liked it.

Contains spoilers because I need to talk about the ending.

Plot summary: Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch - 'Scout' - returns home from New York City to visit her aging 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 a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past - a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience. 

Obviously there's a lot of controversy over Go Set A Watchman -  whether Harper Lee actually consented to its release, whether it was necessary to publish it at all and particularly over the alternations to the character of Atticus Finch. Incidentally, I read an article on the struggles now faced by people called Atticus, and... really? You didn't struggle before this!? I mean, I'm glad your parents are well-read, but... really?

Anyway, from all the hoo-hah, I was expecting that this first draft of a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird also showed Atticus as a preliminary mock-up - the version that was planned before he became what we all know and loved, and he would therefore likely be different. I was prepared for that. I didn't like the idea and I wasn't sure how I'd deal with it, but I understood.

Except, thankfully, it's not even that. I thought Atticus' alteration was an unintentional by-product of the earlier book; something to be disgruntled about but ignore. However, I'm not sure it's really fair to complain that Atticus is different, when the very fact that he's different is part of the plot. It actually works really well and I like it a lot. Essentially, Scout (sorry, Jean Louise now) has to struggle with the concept that perhaps her father is flawed after all - having pinned all her own moral standings and ideologies on Atticus, she now has to deal with what happens when one of his beliefs breaks away from her own.

It's a clever idea and it mixes things up a bit. I'm not sure how interesting this would be if you hadn't read To Kill A Mockingbird. There would be nothing to compare Atticus to, and therefore most of the nuances of the plot would pass you by. I mean, it makes sense as a stand-alone, but you wouldn't feel Scout's disconnect quite as harshly. That said, why would you read this book before the other? It comes later, both in terms of storyline and publication, so perhaps I'm worrying too much.  

The writing style is distinctly that of To Kill A Mockingbird. It has the same tone, the same atmosphere and just general snugliness. There are a few sentences that were so convoluted I had to read over it a few times to work out what it was trying to say, but we know that this book was barely edited. There are also a few references to American statutes and decisions that just assume you're intimately familiar with them as it never bothers to explain what they actually were, and I was thrown off track a few times by this.

So yes, I liked Go Set A Watchman. I still do, in fact. The only problem is that I finished this book yesterday and haven't been able to get it out of my head ever since. The ending, and the build-up to the ending, is... not what I expected and it left me reeling. I knew, KNEW, that it would turn out that Atticus and Hank were acting sort-of undercover in order to keep an eye on those pesky racists in the village. KNEW IIIIIIIIT. To the point where I was getting quite annoyed at Scout for not realising it sooner.

But then... that did most certainly not happen. Like I said above, I accept that Atticus has changed and I think it makes a good storyline. I'm just not sure I agree with the message of the book and it left me all frowny and scowly. Essentially Scout is appalled at how racist her town has become - her family now even refuse to associate with her beloved housekeeper because of the colour of her skin. Still though, an interesting storyline.

But it's resolved by her uncle hitting her, calling her a bigot and explaining to her that she just has to accept it. Then she nods and smiles, and feels incredibly guilty for daring to contradict her father because she should absolutely just accept that he thinks black people are lesser. She accepts that SHE'S in the wrong.

"You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart... They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn't make them subhuman.

You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not much. You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of the most people. Your ends may well be right - I think I believe in the same ends - but you cannot use people as your pawns, Atticus."

God, Scout. How bigoted of you. 

I'm not necessarily offended, because I understand that times have changed and therefore so have attitudes towards, well, everyone. Black people, women, homosexuals... we're pretty lucky to live in the time that we do. I also know that Go Set A Watchman is almost entirely unedited. It's just that it's confusing and there's no real resolution other than Scout's misplaced acceptance.

To clarify, I'm happy with the book overall and I'm really happy that we got a chance to read it. I just wish that the ending had been a little more thought-out and I didn't disagree with the message so desperately.

How did you feel about Atticus' transformation? Has this book affected how you feel about To Kill A Mockingbird? 

1 comment:

  1. I skimmed this a little because I was avoiding the spoilers, but I am glad you were happy with the book in general. I'm still not sure whether I want to read it or not. I think I might re-read Mockingbird first and then decide. Even then I'll probably just wait til it's out in paperback. I'm certainly intrigued by all the controversy!


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