Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – Book Review

American president Abraham Lincoln is accorded a rather mystical and heroic reverence as the “Great Emancipator” and saviour of the black race due to his role in the American Civil War. However, when one gains further insight into the man himself and becomes aware that he was actually somewhat racist in his views of African Americans and in favour of their repatriation to Liberia, it is rather discomforting to say the least. In a similar vein, after many years viewing Atticus Finch as the archetypal father figure and a bastion of civil rights, reading Go Set a Watchman and realising that he too is only human, albeit fictionally, and has also struggled with the issue of race and civil rights, is just as discomforting.

The news that Harper Lee was going to end her years of silence and publish a sequel to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird made me unashamedly jump up and down with excitement. However, as the days to publication came ever closer and the early reviews began to come out and details of the book to leak; I became aware that perhaps it was going to be vastly different to its sister, and after reading it I can say that this is definitely the case. I will also say that the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication made me feel a little uneasy. We will probably never know whether Lee did want her first attempt at a novel in the public domain or not. I found it disappointing that because of her age and the, in my view, man-handled way in which it was pushed through for publication, the book has not been properly edited. Indeed, while it is intriguing to get a glimpse at a first draft, reading it made me feel like I was an editor rather than a reader, noticing bad phrasing and awkward narration and quelling an impulse to reach for a pencil. All of that being said, Lee is a good writer and her first draft is much better than I am sure an attempt by me would be.

Watchman sees Jean Louise, having set aside her childhood nickname Scout, come back home to Maycomb after years away in the metropolis of New York, and grapple with the realisation that her father is not as perfect as she had always thought. Lee herself grew up in a small Southern town and the small-mindedness and prejudicial viewpoints surrounding civil rights that Jean Louise confronts in the book are probably similar to ones she herself had to grapple with.

The book is set twenty years after Mockingbird in the mid-1950s, the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case is referred to, Jean Louise argues that it “destroyed” the tenth amendment, and there is an awareness of the 100th anniversary of the American Civil War which freed the African-American slaves. The dialogue concerning this is particularly interesting, for example, in their conversation over whether the South is ready for civil rights, Dr Finch argues that it is currently ‘America’s brave new Atomic world and the South’s just beginning its Industrial Revolution’. Reading this in 2015 during the 150th anniversary of the war in the midst of conversations over how far the American South has come since then, and, indeed, since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, is rather poignant.

‘The only human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.’

Jean Louise recognises that her world has changed after finding a pro-Ku Klux Klan pamphlet amongst Atticus’ papers. She follows him to his “town meeting” and watches in horror as he sits amongst fellow-Maycombers and argues in favour of preventing desegregation. This shocking event follows a rather touching scene where she goes to visit their old help Calpurnia and realises that even between them, whose relationship had previously been one of a mother and daughter, there are tensions and unspoken codes of conduct now. There are flashbacks to her childhood and the crux of Mockingbird that act as a bridge between what she thought she knew of her father and Maycomb and how she comes to terms with her new reality. It is interesting to read the scenes narrating the court-case in Mockingbird where Atticus defended a young black man and prevented his conviction because we now know that these were the highlights for Lee’s original editors which gave fruit to her best creation.

‘Gentleman, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.’

Interestingly, it is Atticus’ brother Dr Jack Finch that has the prominent role in this novel for saying the line that gives it its title. After breaking down in understanding that Atticus is just as infallible as everyone else, Dr Finch tells Jean Louise ‘everyman’s island…every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience’. Fundamentally, Watchman is all about Jean Louise coming to terms with the world she inhabits. She learns that life is not fair, and the people we look up to, and love, are unfortunately not without flaws, which are just as important life lessons as the ones Atticus brought her up with.

There are indeed imperfections with this novel; moments where the narrative does not flow particularly well, segments where the storyline is rambling and irrelevant and it is overall does not make for an easy read or act like a good sequel to Mockingbird. Instead of a close sister, it is more like a step-sister; technically one of the family but not a true relation.

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