My internal conflict over buying a copy of the much anticipated yet highly divisive 2nd book of the legendary Harper Lee could be an entire article unto itself. Between scepticism over the elderly and infirm Ms Lee’s involvement in the book’s release and the revelation in advance reviews that the deified Atticus Finch had become quite the racist in his old age, I put off making a decision on my purchase until the last minute. I’ll spare you the self-indulgence of the full story and get straight to the meat of the matter – Is Go Set A Watchman any good?
In truth, I sort of loved this book. It’s a mess, but there’s much to admire.
Categorising the novel is a task in and of itself. It’s not exactly a sequel, nor is it a reboot of the tale of the Finch family, although it can understandably be read as both if you so desire. For me, it stands at its strongest as a writing exercise; the result of a young Lee’s experiments with fiction. It’s raw, rough around the edges and could use a round of editing (apparently Lee requested that the book be left as it was found) but the skill shines through.
Jean Louise Finch, better known to readers as Scout, returns home to Maycombe, Alabama, from her current residence in New York. Her brother Jem is dead, her father Atticus infirm but still active, and a potential beau Hank waits in the wings for an acceptance to his marriage proposal. This is still the Scout we know – tomboyish, prone to rebellion and determined to be her own person. This is also a Jean Louise in a liminal state. Maycombe is her home and she finds undeniable comfort in moments of familiarity, yet she feels increasingly at odds with the place. This comes to a bitter climax when she discovers Hank and Atticus sitting in on a meeting with fire and brimstone racists who oppose the growing influence of the NAACP in the state.
The very idea of a racist Atticus will break many hearts (especially the myriad of parents who named their kids after him), yet it doesn’t feel out of place. The Atticus Finch here is still a man of the law, a studious pillar of the community who people turn to in their moment of needs. He sees no contradiction in defending a black man in court and opposing the Supreme Court’s recent actions on the constitutional legitimacy of segregation. He reasons his actions in eloquent ways, but that makes them no less horrifying to Jean Louise, who struggles to deal with the ramifications of this revelation of her father, the benevolent racist.
Jean Louise is described by the narrative as ‘colour blind’, a sign of its time, but the journey she goes on is no less revealing. A white woman from the south, the most prominent influences in her life were her white father who staunchly defended a black man in court and a black maid, Calpurnia, who fulfilled the role of the Finch children’s mother in many ways. As Jean Louise wakes up to the stark realities of her privileged upbringing, she has to come to terms with the fact that Calpurnia was an employee, not a member of her family. The way those she love have helped define her as a person are not the ways those people themselves are defined.
Some of this is handled a little clumsily, especially in the final 30 pages or so, and it mostly unfolds through dialogue, but there’s real force to it. The anger feels entirely authentic, as does the confusion. It stands at its brightest during the quieter moments; Jean Louise reminiscing over her childhood (one incident involving falsies at high school prom is a laugh out loud moment), her dry wit regarding the familiar tics of the townsfolk, her pointed flirtations with Hank (a Nice Guy if ever there was one – sadly every generation has them). Lee’s eye for detail is evident here, not as finely honed as it became in To Kill A Mockingbird but still eloquently evoking a time and place viewed with conflicted emotions.
I entirely understand the mixed reactions so far and I have no doubt many will read Go Set A Watchman with disappointment or even disdain. That’s fully understandable. It’s a confusing read, one never fully in step with its much loved companion, but it doesn’t need to be. The book functions as its most effective, and in my opinion most rewarding, when viewed as the first steps of an evolution. This is the stepping stone of that we know and love, and it offers a new historical and cultural perspective we may not have thought about, nor wished to think about. It breaks down an idea but does not decimate it. There’s hope in the realism. Amidst this uneven, jagged edged tale is a golden glimpse of what came through half closed eyes.