Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I have finally read the much-talked-about Go Set a Watchman, which has been creating a good deal of controversy on my twitter feed. The novel is definitely a strange one. It was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but set afterwards, following a grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Scout) as she visits her home town of Maycomb, Alabama.

The novel is an odd one to read. Since it was written in the 1950’s but not published until this year, it reads like a classic novel without the benefit of being old. It is also written in the third person, while To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the first person. This has the odd result of an impartial narrator saying things in a distinctly old-fashioned way, which becomes harder to dismiss when you consider the book as a new one. For example, on the first page we find:

She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

It’s a little disquieting to find outdated racial terms in a modern book, and I am not sure how to react to them.

Also strange about reading this book is that you constantly have to remind yourself that it’s not intended to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; rather, the ideas from Watchman influenced Mockingbird. This leads to some weird discrepancies. For example (spoiler?) the court case in Mockingbird ends with Tom Robinson being found guilty, while the passing mention to the case in Watchman states that he was acquitted. Atticus also comes across as… strange. While his position and views do not completely change from book to book (rather, Jean Louise becomes aware of his different views), he still seems less completely sensible and gentleman-like than he was in Mockingbird. I feel that his character definitely matured and improved between the two books.

There’s also this totally weird bit where Jean Louise decides to leave town because she’s had enough of all the racism, and her uncle punches her in the face to calm her down.

All that aside, I have to say I started the book absolutely loving it. Lee’s style and abilities are obvious even from this early draft, and Part I of the book in particular feels like returning to a place from your childhood.

I suppose this book would be worth reading if you are interested in the novel-writing and editing processes. It is interesting to see how the ideas from Watchman developed into Mockingbird, and which little excerpts Lee kept hold of. There are a number of paragraphs that she literally copied over, for example, such as the difference between the Cunninghams and the Coninghams, who are all related in any case and can’t necessarily spell. As a book in itself – and especially if you have never read To Kill a Mockingbird – I would say give this one a miss, unless you are especially fond of racist rants (of which there are several).

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