Sunday, 19 July 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee Review

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth,”
Isiah 21:6

The book opens with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch on a train journey from the North to Maycomb, Alabama. It’s a journey that’s taken five and a half decades in the real world, since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, but only some twenty years have passed in Scout’s. 

She is returning home from New York City to Maycomb for a two week holiday, visiting her elderly father Atticus, now 72 and ready to hand over his practice to Henry Clinton, his protege and Scout’s high school crush. Needless to say things have changed while she’s been away. 

Civil rights is right around the corner and segregation in the South is to become a thing of the past. Pro-segregation groups have sprung up to “preserve the Southern way of life”, taking the form of Citizen’s Councils. But when Scout secretly attends one of the council’s meetings, her world is shattered. On the board of the council is Atticus. 

Harper Lee is 89 years old this year. She didn’t write Go Set a Watchman recently so this isn’t representative of the person she is today. She wrote the Watchman manuscript in 1957, before Mockingbird, but is a sequel to her most famous, and up until this past week, only published novel. 

Lee has done little press for the book’s launch (as if she needed to!) but she said that her editor at the time was taken with the flashbacks to Scout’s youth in Watchman and persuaded her to write a novel solely about them. That book became To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman was put aside and only recently discovered by Lee’s lawyer. 

The circumstances of how Watchman came to be published are murky at the moment and I won’t go into them here. But I am glad that we got the book after all these years because it is a superb novel from a literary legend and we do get to meet these beloved characters once more. But also because Watchman is a more nuanced look at the character of Atticus Finch. 

(Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read the book yet)

Atticus is one of the great literary fathers. Wise, calm, intelligent, patient, loving - he is certainly one of the most idealised father figures in fiction. The “watchman” of the title could be interpreted as a reference to Atticus - the moral guardian of Maycomb and Scout herself - as much as it is about everyone’s own moral code. 

Watchman muddies this image laid out so pristinely in Mockingbird: Atticus, it’s revealed, is a racist. 

For some readers, that’s reason enough to instantly dislike this novel and wish it had stayed hidden. Scout reacts in a similarly outraged fashion. For me, I like that detail. Not because I’m racist but because I always felt Atticus was a little too simplistically portrayed in Mockingbird. Watchman gives him heretofore unseen depth and complexity. It doesn’t make him more aspirational - if anything it makes him less! - but it does make him a more real, more interesting character. 

That’s the brilliance of Watchman: the way it reintroduces us to the familiar characters and shatters what we know about them. If Mockingbird is appropriately black and white morality because our hero was a child, Watchman is nothing but gray - as complicated as adult life is. 

While the novel explores themes of race from the perspectives of the north (represented by Scout) and the south (Atticus), it also looks at the changing role of women in society. Scout is a modern woman who isn’t looking to marry and is happy to be single and working independently, while her Aunt Alexandra pushes for the traditional role of women, which is the opposite. 

Above all, Watchman’s main theme is growing up. Scout is forced to realise her father is not the infallible god she has built up in her mind, like readers of Mockingbird came to view him as the ideal father; he is a good man but flawed. And it’s as shocking for Scout to understand as it is for the reader (an alternate title sprang to mind: You Can’t Go Home Again, Mockingbird!). 

I also fully expected an explanation for why Atticus was attending the Citizen’s Council to banish any fault on his character - and there was none. That’s a brave choice by Lee. 

That’s not to say Atticus’ character is completely rewritten. Aside from this bombshell, it’s the same beloved character and he remains Lee’s most enduring creation. Scout is a charming delight who has unsurprisingly blossomed into a wonderful person, though with still much to learn about the world. Atticus’ sister Alexandra is also a sharply realised persona whose conflicts with Scout are a wonderful addition to the novel. So too is Dr Jack Finch, Atticus’ brother, who has no less a powerful character and has some of the best dialogues with Scout in Watchman. 

The conversations between the characters are the highlights of the novel. Scout’s discussion with Henry reveals the politics of small town life, not to mention the realities of coming from a poor family with a bad reputation; her many back and forths with Jack are thoughtful and amusing; and her final, passionate debate with Atticus is the centrepiece of the book. It’s no less than a national conversation held between two characters in a room. 

You don’t necessarily need to have read Mockingbird before reading Watchman but it’ll make for a more meaningful experience if you do. Because as sparklingly as the dialogue engages the mind, Scout’s reunion with Calpurnia quietly breaks the heart. Nobody could fail to be moved when Scout’s true mother figure addresses her as a white person instead of the little girl she raised. It’s written so well, you’ll be as devastated as Scout when reading it. 

There are also the aforementioned flashbacks to Scout’s youth scattered throughout, covering her awkward teenage years as she became a young woman. There are some sweet moments between Scout and Henry but I’m glad they were included as we get to see some more of Jem (Dill is absent). 

Like Mockingbird, Watchman moves at its own rambling pace with many side anecdotes to bring local colour to the story. But when it needs to, it cuts to the quick with alarming briskness and force. It’s a character-driven novel, not plot, but what characters to spend your time with! Whether they’re recounting Maycomb gossip or debating politics, they’re never less than entertaining, witty and compelling. 

To Kill a Mockingbird will always be one of the great works of the 20th century teaching generation after generation its message of equality, compassion and justice. Go Set a Watchman reminds us that such ideals are tenable sometimes by those who don’t necessarily believe in them and that all childhood heroes change as we get older. (Ironically this novel will sell millions because of nostalgia and yet it’s such an anti-nostalgic story!) It is a seemingly simple message that belies its complexity and importance composed beautifully, Harper Lee speaks to us freshly and clearly today from the 1950s. 

Go, read Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman

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