Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Reviewed by Harriet

Rarely can the publication of a novel have been surrounded by such an uproar and so many misconceptions. Let’s put one of them straight right away — this is not a ‘first draft’ of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s an earlier novel, which Harper Lee described as the parent of that book, though of course it actually acts as a sequel, as it deals with later events. I’ve been trying not to read reviews, but I caught one which said it was ‘a mess’. No, it is not — it is a well-crafted novel. Perhaps the thing that has saddened me the most is the many people I have read who have said they will not read it because it will spoil their feelings about TKAM, by which they generally mean about Atticus Finch. I suppose we have to say that they are entitled to take this view if they must, but it seems to me to be akin to the growing trend in some universities for students to avoid certain modules because they will have to encounter opinions and statements which challenge their own beliefs. Perhaps those people should take note of what Harper Lee apparently said (though I haven’t found the source of this):

The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think.

So, let’s set aside the controversies and take a look at the novel itself. It is set in the mid-1950s, not long after the US Supreme Court passed a bill outlawing racial segregation, something which will resonate throughout the novel. A young woman, once known as Scout but now called Jean Louise, returns on holiday to her Alabama hometown from New York, where she lives and works. Her lawyer father Atticus is now 72 and suffering badly from arthritis, and her aunt Alexandra has moved into the house to take care of him. He still goes to work, aided by his assistant Henry, who is also Jean Louise’s long-term boyfriend. Henry very much wants them to marry, but Jean Louise isn’t sure — she knows she loves him but she also suspects that he is not the right husband for her, and in any case she values her independence.

How all this would pan out in the end under normal circumstances, who knows. But Jean Louise happens on a meeting at the local courthouse, attended by every white male in town (including Henry) and presided over by Atticus himself, at which racist sentiments are being exchanged freely and enthusiastically. To say she is shocked hardly encompasses it. Her entire world, everything she has ever thought and believed, is thrown into complete and devastating disarray. Her first reaction, after the vomiting and weeping have retreated a bit, is to pack her bags and leave, never to return. But the story doesn’t end there. She talks to Henry, and she talks to Atticus, she hears their points of view. None of this changes the way she feels, but the ending offers a resolution of sorts, albeit a sad one.

For me this was an immensely powerful and thought-provoking novel. No wonder people have been upset by it — anyone (and goodness knows there are plenty of them) who has idolised Atticus Finch will find it disturbing. But in some ways it almost makes him a more admirable man, or perhaps we should say admirable in a different way. His extraordinary and unprecedented act in TKAM, the defence of Tom Robinson, has to be seen in a different light. We undoubtedly assumed that he did it because he was not prejudiced against black people, but no — he did it because he believed in justice, even for a race of people who, as we now discover, he viewed as little more than ignorant children. So, a man of strong principles, a believer in right and morality, but a man whose attitudes have the power to shock and revolt as much today as at the time the novel was written. Jean Louise’s cry is tragic – ‘Why did I have to be born colourblind?’. Of course we admire and love her for her colourblindness, but it’s easy to understand why she feels she’d rather have been as blinkered and ignorant as everyone else in her hometown evidently is (there’s a terrific scene where she sits through a coffee party arranged by her aunt, at which she listens in horror to the views of her own female contemporaries) — it would have saved her the pain and devastation she’ll probably go on suffering for the rest of her life.

The novel moves towards its close with a long and intensely painful confrontation between Jean Louise and her father, which I thought brilliantly written.  She is angry and grief-stricken to the point of hysteria, and he is quietly and sweetly reasonable even while expressing sentiments you will not enjoy hearing, which of course makes them all the more chilling.

So – this is a novel about growing up, with a vengeance. Although the circumstances here are extreme, I think the basic premise will resonate with many people – it’s all too easy to put someone on a pedestal, to make them a god, as Jean Louise says. The great challenge is to find a way of continuing to love them when you discover they are not the person you believed them to be. Does it make Atticus less of a good and loving father that he was a racist bigot? A book that makes you think. Do read it.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (Heinemann: London, 2015). 978-1785150289, 288pp., hardback.

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