Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing 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 painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one’s own conscience.”

REVIEW: Upon the release of this novel, I found myself to be one of the many people who, as avid fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, were greatly excited to read this novel and discover what had happened to all the characters whom we know and love from the original novel. Because of this, I found it extremely difficult to review the book as a stand-alone novel, and felt let down by how the characters had developed, as many of them had become something I no longer liked nor empathised with as I did in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, Go Set a Watchman was actually the novel that Lee wrote first, until persuaded by the publishers to write instead of Scout’s childhood, which they felt – it seems correctly – would appeal much more greatly to the reading public. In light of this, should we see the characterisation of our protagonists in Go Set a Watchman as the real characters, and the characterisation of them in To Kill a Mockingbird as a more innocent, sugar-coated version designed to sit more comfortably with the public conscience? These are just some of the questions I asked myself as I thought about how I was going to write a review of this book which, despite Lee’s brilliantly witty, energetic and philosophical writing style, for me could not hope to foster the same love in me as To Kill a Mockingbird did when I first read it four years ago. The reader is aware that things have changed greatly in Maycomb right from the start of the novel; we find out within the first fifty pages that Jean Louise’s beloved brother Jem is dead, though his death is never mentioned in great detail and felt somewhat skimmed over by Lee, who perhaps at the time had not realised how much of a beloved and important character Jem would become. The character of Dill seems to have been replaced by Jean Louise’s love interest, Henry, who was barely mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird but who here is shown to have played a great role in Jean Louise’s early years and been the object of her affections throughout their adolescence. Dill is mentioned, but it is Henry who appears to colour all of Jean Louise’s childhood memories, rather than Dill. Minor characters like Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack are pushed to the fore in this novel, taking on integral roles, while the vibrant Calpurnia is pushed to the sidelines as racial tensions begin to mount and she distances herself from the Finch family, including her beloved Scout, who is heartbroken by Calpurnia’s indifference towards her. It is Atticus, however, that has caused so much controversy in reviews since the release of this novel, as Lee has him spouting racist views that disagree violently with the intelligent lawyer who we saw defend Tom Robinson with such passion in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, I would argue that, by the end of the novel, readers can see that in a sense Atticus has not really changed that much at all. Yes, his views have changed in a manner that completely horrifies Jean Louise and make her physically unwell, and also deeply shocks the reader – or so it seems. By the end of the novel, however, the reader begins to get a sense that Atticus does not necessarily believe in what he is saying; he is, in fact, trying to prevent the racial tensions in the South from escalating by becoming part of one side so that he is able to rein them in. This is how I perceived Atticus’ motives myself, though I will confess that this may be somewhat hopeful on my part, as I did not wish to lose the character I had always admired so greatly. The thing I did enjoy about the book, however, was that Jean Louise  – our beloved Scout – has not changed one bit. Scout acts as an anchor for the reader, acting as our ‘watchman’ – our conscience – and the only point of sanity in a world overrun by terrifying and upsetting racial hatred.

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