Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

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.

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, humor 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 an American classic.

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As I said in my review of To Kill a Mockingbird, I had somehow avoided the book before we chose it as one of our titles last month. However, I immediately fell in love with Ms Lee’s writing and characters: it is very obvious why this title is considered to be a masterpiece. With this in mind, I was a little wary about this supposed ‘sequel’ and the controversy surrounding its discovery and publication only added to my concern. I tried to approach the book with an open mind, but within a few sentences I was already filled with a sinking feeling of disappointment.

Let me begin by saying that the writing is flat, dull and at times really horrible to read. Knowing that this is supposedly an uncorrected draft can excuse some of the mangled sentences, but the whole tone of the writing is lifeless. I do not think this is helped by the decision to write it in the third person, because this creates a certain distance between reader and character that is difficult to overcome. To Kill a Mockingbird is written in the first person, drawing us into Scout’s world and allowing us to see it through her eyes. Although this restricts our perspective on the world, it makes the book so much more personal and interesting as we see her learn how to relate to her environment. In Go Set a Watchman we are able to follow several characters in an omniscient kind of way, but this distance makes Scout’s behavior more difficult to understand, which is very unfortunate as she comes across as a rather spoilt and uninteresting person.

Many reviewers have commented upon the seemingly impossible inclusion of Atticus at a racist town meeting. He himself argues that he is only there to see what happens and influence things from the inside, but then goes on to expound some highly insulting assertions that the freed slaves and their offspring  are mere children and are, therefore, incapable of handling the demands of full citizenship. His ideas about States’ rights and how they should be free to ignore the Supreme Court seemed to me to be a lawyerly way of finding a reason to retain a social system based on racism. The inherent racism in Maycombe society was not a surprise to me, but Atticus’ attitudes were. Strangely, in this book the Tom Robinson case is very different from the one we are familiar with from To Kill a Mockingbird. His accuser is only fourteen years old and yet Atticus is successful in gaining an acquittal. This seems totally impossible, given the rampant racism in force twenty years later on.

Other than Scout and Atticus, we see very little of the other familiar characters: Jem is dead and Dill is travelling in Europe. The characters that we spend most of our time with are rather flat and two-dimensional. They are there merely to provoke Scout to her final epiphany and not fully functional people in their own rights. This leads me to my final criticism: the plotting of the book is sloppy and haphazard. The last third of the book comprises of Scout ranting at her father and engaging in a childish decision to leave Maycomb and never return. By this stage, I was so uninterested in her that I was not overly shocked by her tantrum, although I do think that she should have been past such things by the age of twenty-six! The paternalistic and patronizing responses from her father and uncle were smug and thoroughly infuriating: a suitably depressing end to a book that was supposed to be so great and yet was desperately underwhelming.

There was one moment of sunlight in this whole mess: a brief glimpse of Scout, Jem and Dill having their own Revival meeting in the neighbor’s fish pond. I can only assume that when the publishers saw this draft back when it was originally written they saw that one spark of brilliance and told her to scrap the rest and write more of like that.

I truly wish that I had never read this book. More importantly, I truly, madly, deeply wish that the cynical person who decided to get it published as a sequel had displayed a greater moral character and put it to one side until Ms Lee’s death. At that point it would have made fascinating reading as a historical artifact and a lesson in how a terrible first draft can become an amazing masterpiece.

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