It’s Sarah here bringing you my review of the highly anticipated and controversial Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, the sequel (or is that prequel?) to her legendary novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was (and still is) arguably one of the landmark novels of American history and an undisputed modern classic. So having heard about its sequel being discovered and released earlier on in the year, I was so pleased to finally get around to reading it, and it certainly lived up to expectations.
Having read To Kill a Mockingbird way back in my GCSE days it quickly became one of my favourite novels of all time, and it’s still up there in my ever increasing list! The message was really moving, even to fourteen year old me, which was probably greatly helped by the fact that it was written from the point of view of a six year old Scout. The child’s perspective really helped to defamiliarise some pretty hard-hitting topics, making you look at them from the eyes of innocence. Incidentally, Go Set a Watchman is set two decades after Mockingbird, and having been written from the point of view of a now grown up and (supposedly) mature twenty-six year old Scout, I feel that I have progressed in both age and maturity along with Jean-Louise, making the impact of the novel even deeper. I can imagine this is the case for a lot of people who read the novel as a teenager or young adult. Now though, the naiveté of young Scout, and by extension the reader, has been replaced with a more thorough understanding of the complex and sensitive issues that are dealt with, or least acknowledged in both books.
Jean-Louise is the same old Scout that we know and love from To Kill a Mockingbird, with the added bonus of having a more mature outlook on life. Therefore, perhaps controversially, as she’s the main character, I’m not actually going to talk about her as a character too much. Although if you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird and don’t know what kind of person she is, then perhaps you should as you’ll be more equipped to read this review.
To begin with, I think I’ll get some of the gritty stuff out of the way. I feel that this novel is definitely one of disillusionment, dealing with the devastation Jean-Louise faces as she realises a lot of what she understood as a child is not what it seemed. We are confronted with her absolute horror at the reality of her father’s seemingly new outlook on life and her thoughts and actions that come as a result of this. Personally, I empathised with her and felt at times as if I was standing in her shoes, going along with the ride as she is taken on an emotional rollercoaster. My memories of Atticus are fond ones and even as a teenager, I really appreciated his seemingly complete abhorrence of racism. He seemed to represent all that it was to be progressive and to stand against the race inequalities that were still a prevalent issue in the fictional deep-South town of Maycomb, and of course in the reality of America in the time that the novel was written. Therefore to find out that things were not what they seemed, I understood the plight that Jean-Louise went through to some extent. Obviously, she has deeply psychological issues to deal with that it would be unfair of me to say I can sympathise with. But to clarify, I mean that it was as much of a disillusionment for the reader as it was for Jean-Louise as she and the reader are faced with an Atticus that goes against everything we thought we knew about him. However, this comes as somewhat of an epiphany about herself as much as it is about the people around her.
On a far more positive note, Lee’s writing style is as fantastic as ever, which is especially surprising considering that Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird! As a note of explanation, Lee was a young writer, and perhaps still a little naïve when it came to the world of writing and publishing. Having written Watchman in her early thirties as a first time novel, her editor gave her the advice of writing a whole new novel instead, thinking she should expand on the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood that were an essential part of her first manuscript. Being a novice in the industry, she did what she was told, wrote the new novel, put Watchman to the side, thinking of it almost as a first draft of Mockingbird and thought nothing else of it. That was until it was unearthed in 2011, leading to its publication in July of this year. I’m not going to get involved in the shroud of controversy surrounding its timely discovery and unveiling. I think that whatever the truth is surrounding that, we should appreciate it for what it is – an excellent novel that is exceedingly impressive, well-written and fantastically articulated considering Lee was a first-time writer. I think this goes to show that she has raw, natural talent as a writer. Practically every other line is quote worthy and she manages to create such profound, intuitive and often hard-hitting phrases as if it were second nature! It was also very brave of her to write her first novel on such sensitive and controversial topics such as rape, race inequality and class divisions.
Being a student of literature who has recently tackled Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem which pretty much consists entirely of allusions and references to other texts, myths, cultures and languages, I felt very much equipped to deal with the substantial amount of references Lee incorporated in this novel. This is not to say that they’re anywhere near as abundant or daunting as those in The Waste Land, because the simple fact is that they’re not. However, it really made me appreciate the fact that Lee must have been so well-read and knowledgeable to have incorporated such a variety of relevant and often amusing references. And I’m not gonna lie, there was a hell of a lot of second hand learning happening on my part just from researching all the references! It was also interesting not to have all of them spelt out for me as is often the case with many novels I have to read (footnotes galore!). This gave me a lot more freedom to interpret the references independently instead of being spoon fed the information. As they say, you learn something new every day – or a million new things in the case of reading Harper Lee!
That leads on nicely to the character of Uncle Jack who is a great character throughout the novel and is usually the source of many of the references (whilst remaining, of course, the mouthpiece for Lee’s own wisdom). It is clear that he has played a crucial role in the education of Jean-Louise and she goes along with his eccentric character and strong appreciation for nineteenth century English literature like it was, and clearly is, a part of everyday life. Having been brought up around his vast knowledge, she has clearly picked up a great deal of information which makes for a really interesting, and mostly hilarious back-and-forth between the lovely Jack and his niece. You just know that whenever those two get together, you’re in for an interesting time! It was also nice to get to know Jack a lot more as he wasn’t as much of a significant character in Mockingbird.This makes me think Lee could have made something more of the effect Jack had in the children’s lives when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. This is especially the case considering she knew what a big impact he had on Scout having already written her future, as it were. His appearance in Watchman as such a big influence in Scout’s life is somewhat of a surprise to say the least.
Similarly, there’s the matter of Hank, Scout’s childhood friend and sweetheart. He’s a relatively developed and a significant character in this novel, and yet I think I’m right in saying that there’s barely a mention of him in To Kill a Mockingbird! I didn’t actually like him much as a character and found him really patronising towards Jean-Louise who is such a strong, independent woman, at the risk of using a cliché. But again, I feel that Hank, who has clearly been so significant and influential for Jean-Louise, was lost in translation as it were when she rewrote the novel. We learn from reading Watchman that he played such an important part in her life, and yet he didn’t make the cut when Lee (or rather her editor) took what she thought to be the best parts of this novel to recreate them in the form of the one that followed.
One thing that has come of my reading of this novel is an urge to go back and read Mockingbird with the hindsight granted by reading the precursor, along with my advanced understanding of the themes and issues covered in the books that may have escaped my notice as a younger reader. I also feel that we as readers owe it to Lee to read the books in the order that she intended, or at least appreciate her original wishes for this book to be published first before she was somewhat pressured to write a completely new novel. I also realise that I have spoken about the characters in Go Set a Watchman as if they are real, tangible people, but I want to express that I am totally aware that they are simply constructs of Lee’s brilliant mind. However, I feel that this is testament to the fact that Lee obviously has a real talent for writing and is able to develop her characters and plot so deeply and intricately that we are left feeling as if they are real people that we’ve known all our lives.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading what turned out to be a pretty long review/analysis of what I guess you already gathered I deem to be yet another masterpiece from one of the great authors of modern times! I congratulate those of you that stuck it out to the end! (My review that is, not the book – you’ll have no trouble finishing that in a jiffy!)
Lots of love, Sarah Xxx