The cover is an honest one. The words ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ are prominent, they shadow the title in letters almost equal in size to the book’s actual name. And that’s the truth of it. Go Set a Watchman is neither prequel nor sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, it’s a companion piece.
The opening chapter is delightful, setting out the stall for what the reader hopes will be an engaging story. A twenty-six year old woman, bright, forward-looking and articulate is coming home for a holiday. The prose is evocative, the pace lively. In the course of a few pages you find out that her brother is dead, her father is ageing and suffering from arthritis and that there is romance in her life, or the promise of it. You want to read on. But the rest of the book, if looked at as a stand-alone novel, doesn’t live up to those opening pages.
There is much to enjoy. Jean Louise, or Scout as she is best known, is still a marvellous character. There is humour in the book, coarser language than I was expecting. Parts of the narrative sing, in particular flashbacks to her childhood, and there is an encounter with her former nurse which is genuinely moving. But elsewhere the pace is uneven. The plot is underdeveloped. Chapters tail off. There is no real dramatic climax, no centre piece that can in any way be compared to the story at the heart of To Kill A Mockingbird.
In Go Set A Watchman Jean Louise finds out new information about the father she idolised as a child. Atticus Finch, who in To Kill A Mockingbird is portrayed as a hero, is shown now to have views about black people which are far more in keeping with the beliefs of the time. The modern reader sees him as racist. Much has been printed about these revelations since the first review of the book appeared at the weekend, with readers of the first novel declaring themselves ‘disappointed’ at this news. But this is a novel, Atticus Finch a fictional character.
Harper Lee can do whatever she wants to her characters. In this book Atticus is less of a saint, less forward thinking, more complicated. Less likeable? Certainly, but it’s not the job of the novelist to create only likeable characters. Atticus’s reasons for thinking the way he thinks are fascinating and in some ways give us a better of picture of life at the time then the more idealised version in the first book can. He’s an ageing man trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world. We as readers identify with his daughter, who is home from the big city, seeing her old life through new eyes. For Jean Louise, there is an easily identifiable right and wrong; as she says herself, she was ‘born color blind’. We won’t agree with Atticus, but his views are of interest from a historical and cultural perspective.
Harper Lee in 2007 when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
What is fascinating about this book is the story behind it. We are told that the editor who first read this version went back to Lee and told her to rewrite the story from the child’s point of view. The world of literature owes that editor a huge debt, because it was that guidance that helped shape one of the most memorable works of literature in the English language. It was the right decision to reject this version and tell Lee to write To Kill A Mockingbird instead. But that doesn’t mean this book is worthless. On the contrary, it’s a compelling read in terms of what was going on in the US at the time. The sections where Jean Louise speaks to her father and uncle read like unedited, spoken word debates, and there’s an act of physical violence towards the end of the book that is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader.
But perhaps this only matters if you are viewing this book as a stand-alone novel. If you look at it as, in the words of the publisher an ‘essential companion’ to the original text it makes far more sense. Go Set A Watchman gives you a terrific insight into the culture and politics of its era and indeed into the process of novel writing itself. Lovers of To Kill A Mockingbird need not despair. That book still lives and will continue to enchant. This new work will be of value to fans of that book and academics alike. Given the lack of material Harper Lee has published, it’s probably for this best that this was released, as long as the reader is clear on what to expect.
Our rating three stars out of five.
Sinead Crowley, RTÉ Arts and Media Correspondent