Go Set A Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee

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I’m going to be blunt and state right now that in the run up to the long-anticipated release of this book there were a few things that really got on my wick. Firstly there was the early release of the first chapter, the abundance of spoilers lurking everywhere I looked, the mass of misinformed rumours spreading over the internet… Combine this with the hazy details about how the book came to be published and the troubling suggestion that a frail old woman was being exploited and I was starting to get a nasty taste in my mouth before I’d even handed over my money. By the time I finally sat down to read it, yesterday lunchtime, I was already a bit irritated, already making judgements, already convinced I’d be disappointed. It’s a shame really because there are few books that I’ve looked forward to reading so much.

I know many people will have a rough idea of the plot already. It’s set in the 50s and follows  Jean Louise Finch (Scout to you and me) as she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a short visit after a year in New York. She finds the town of her childhood changed beyond recognition and the people she loves clinging to some disturbing and backward ideas. Racial hostilities in the south are at their peak, the county is on the verge of violence, and Scout is horrified by the change in her home and in her family.

“I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference. I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty six years is too long to play a joke on anybody, no matter how funny it is.”

I think if you go into Watchman expecting a sequel or a direct follow-on to To Kill A Mockingbird you’ll be mightily confused. The dates don’t really add up, the same events are described rather differently and some of the characters we grew to love in Mockingbird are dealt with very cursorily (such as Dill, for example). The ‘shocking’ revelations about Atticus are pretty well known by now but there was one other very brief scene with Calpurnia about mid-way through which damn near broke my heart. It’s unsettling and feels a bit out of character, as if these figures are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

When I looked into it I realised that the key is probably to consider Watchman a standalone novel. It was Lee’s first draft, a very early attempt at the book that eventually became Mockingbird. On the advice of her publishers she took it apart, kept the characters and the general theme, but reimagined the plot, gave the narrator a new voice and reset it twenty years earlier. Watchman was the first attempt; Mockingbird the final product. Maybe I’m a coward but I found this reassuring and it helped me make allowances for some of the dramatic differences in character, tone and style.

Go Set A Watchman isn’t a bad novel. I enjoyed some of the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood and admired her ferocious defence of her own beliefs in the face of (some pretty passive) opposition from the man she loves most in the world. She’s the hero. Lee’s publishers clearly thought the manuscript showed promise but there were some good reasons behind the substantial changes she later made. The narration in Watchman is clunky, the dialogue sometimes heavy handed and the ending unconvincing. I thought the final scenes, in which Scout confronts her father and uncle, felt rather hurried. It certainly doesn’t have the warmth or the innocence of Mockingbird but that’s probably something to do with the third person narration. I suspect that if it had been published in this form back in 1957 it might have been forgotten pretty quickly. Thank Christ she rewrote it.

Judging Go Set A Watchman as a completed novel in its own right seems a tad unfair when that’s not really what its author intended. It is, however, how it’s been marketed. I was desperate to love it and that didn’t happen, but I definitely don’t regret reading it. All I can say is that I don’t hate it, not by any means, but I’m not a fan either. If anything it’s made me appreciate To Kill A Mockingbird even more than I did before. In fact, I kind of want to reread it (for the millionth time) right now, just for comfort.

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8 thoughts on “Go Set A Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee

  1. Pingback: Cider With Rosie (1959) by Laurie Lee | the blue bore

  2. Really interesting take on it. Personally I found the publicity surrounding the novel overwhelmed it. I walked past a sign outside a central London bookshop yesterday claiming that it was the “literary event of the decade” and just thought whoever you are + whatever you’re publishing – that is A LOT to live up to! xoxo Louise | Reads and Recipes A literary lifestyle blog

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  3. Really good review! I haven’t read it yet; like you, I was put off by all the furore surrounding the release. I think you’re right though, that the way to approach it is to regard it as the separate entity that it is rather than trying too hard to tie it in to To Kill a Mockingbird. I might read it once all the fuss has died down a bit!

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