The eagerly anticipated and somewhat controversial release of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s precursor to her 1960 classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, has finally come around having collected dust in her paperwork since the late fifties, when it was originally penned. While the storyline behind it isn’t as gripping as her only other previous novel, it does echo, add weight and build upon the themes of good and evil, right and wrong, social inequality, race, understanding and empathy, which were so exceptionally well interlaced in To Kill A Mockingbird.
It feels like an incredible privilege to get to read more of her work following such a long and poignant absence from writing and it instantly takes a place among a select number of other books you might be inclined to read more than just the once in your life. However, for all of her intelligent insight, skill and understanding, Harper Lee has somehow missed or ignored the fact that everyone that reads her books (formerly singular) goes on to fall in love with her writing and in being absent for such a long time she has deprived us a little of that. That aside, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of her writing, which we did frequently, highlighting the absolute mastery she has over the English language, questions of morality and human nature.
Released on hardback, ebook and audio book on the 14th July 2015, with the latter read brilliantly by Reese Witherspoon, Go Set A Watchman returns to Maycomb, Alabama with Jean Louise Finch, Scout, now a 26-year-old New Yorker visiting her father Atticus. Though chronologically it’s set after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was written before it as her intended first novel, but following feedback from her editor it was rewritten to focus on the flashbacks in the book to Scout’s youth and so the one novel became two.
In addition to being a cleverly wrought story that conjures up the trials and tribulations of US racial struggles and voting rights, it also contains more than a few other home truths that are in equal measure stark messages and wise words. They’re delivered without being high horse sermons with everything from, “if you want for little, there is plenty for all”, to the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.
While To Kill A Mockingbird‘s lasting spotlight on the need for empathy and understanding remains bright, the addition of the clarifying points in Go Set A Watchman serve as strong reiterations of this guiding principle and the extremes to which it needs to be adhered to in order to arrive anywhere near the truth. It’s a cleverly architected philosophy once again as layers of turnip sized bigotry are mulched away throughout the story until there is a clear picture of both sides of the coin left.
Harper Lee sets things out to be challenging and uncomfortable, because that’s exactly what the situation was like, but that doesn’t always make it easy for readers. However, the young adult, coming-of-age drama is just as worthwhile a read as the new-found connection to the sometimes scary realities of adult life was for the young Jean Louise, Gem and Dill the last time around.
You’ll need to set yourself a little though in reading the new novel as it cuts down some of the hero figures that became so inspiring in To Kill A Mockingbird. While Boo Radley remains perfectly in tact (going unmentioned and implying that he was devised after the editorial feedback led to the rewrite) Atticus and Scout come under much more scrutiny as the story works to uncover the truth behind everything that happens along the way.
When you review your own analysis of this in connection to the biblical reference of the title and occasional religious segue you might be inclined to see a link somewhere in the mix. While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that the book is a parable of an atheistic journey of discovery, there is a hint at the ability to understand things as they are, both for their better aspects and their limitations.
Our review doesn’t really come close to living up to the standards set out by Harper Lee in her writing of both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, but then very few writers, if any, will stack up well in that situation. We loved reading the new book, not just for what it says about society, but the beautiful, skillful and momentous way that it does it.
Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman review: 4.7/5