Book Review: Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee

 

If anything from the publishing world was ever going to #breaktheinternet, it would be the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Controversy has hounded Lee’s second novel; a “lost” manuscript written decades ago. The strange title, coupled with Lee’s declining health, the mystery surrounding the discovery of the manuscript, and Lee’s claims that she would never publish again, make far more interesting reading than the actual book.

Harper Lee, who almost never grants interviews or publicity, stated that Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. She claims it was a first draft to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Confusingly, Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after the events in Mockingbird.

The story focuses on Scout who is now in her twenties and living in New York. Go Set a Watchman takes place on one of her annual visits to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. Well-loved characters who were previously frozen in time are brought to life again, albeit with some dramatic changes. Fans have been outraged over the changes Lee has wrought on Atticus Finch, Scout’s lawyer father, who in Mockingbird famously defended a black man in a doomed case. Gone are the inspiring Atticus quotes and his quiet willingness to take a stand against racism and inequality; two traits that turned Atticus into an American hero. In his old age, he has become conservative and much of Watchman is Scout’s internal struggle to accept Atticus as just a man and not the idol she has built him up to be. “Day before yesterday she would have said ‘Mr Finch’ll help him’ confident that Atticus would turn dark to daylight.”

Being a draft and a predecessor, Watchman unsurprisingly falls short of the brilliance that is Mockingbird. It’s set at a slower pace, with little action and paragraphs of description that offer nothing to the story. The writing suffers from confusing sentence structure, and word repetition. The most interesting parts of the novel are about Scout’s childhood as she recounts the life she has lived in between Mockingbird and Watchman; puberty, school, learning the facts of life from Calpurnia, going to her first dance, getting her first kiss, and dating. It’s a coming-of-age novel and Scout who is an easy character to love.

Even though she has been forced to grow out of her scruffy tomboy ways and become a woman, she remains an individual. It’s clear that Scout is not content to conform to the status quo in Maycomb which is to marry, settle down, and have children. Like other famous women of literature such as Jo from Little Women and Lizzie from Pride and Prejucide, Scout is headstrong, fiery, open-minded, and curious. She’s a modern woman with modern ideals and to her, the people of Macomb seem backward and narrow-minded. Yet she must decide if she can love and accept them for who they are, and not who she wants them to be.

It seems unfair to compare Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird and yet it’s unavoidable. It’s been over 50 years since Harper Lee published a book and while fans may be disappointed in Go Set a Watchman, without it we might never have had To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

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