‘More than a little divisive’ – Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

hlgsawBlimey. So Harper Lee published a new book in 2016. Didn’t see that one coming did we? Only – deep breath – it’s not a new book, as such, is it? (Go Set a Watchman was written a couple of years earlier than To Kill a Mockingbird.) And – deeper breath – did she publish or was she in fact the victim of some connivance between a lawyer and a massive publisher? Ah, the media with their column inches to fill and their needless need to engorge even the vaguest rumour with gigantic import. And all of the people who cluck (like Percy in the third Blackadder series when he doesn’t know what Blackadder is talking about). Cluck – I have an opinion on a book I haven’t read yet – cluck – I have an opinion about an old lady I have never and most probably will never meet – cluck – I don’t even think To Kill a Mockingbird, that globally treasured book, is all that (finger snap) – cluck cluck cluck. And is it in fact a book or merely a first draft? And should booksellers be giving refunds back to disappointed readers? And – and  – and… Deep breath. A person could be exhausted before they so much as pick up the book.

Things it is actually worth knowing before you read Go Set a Watchman: it isn’t a first draft, it is a distinct novel best approached as a companion-piece to To Kill a Mockingbird; it is a lesser book, to be sure, and a dated book, at times, but for all that it is interesting, interesting as hell; a lot of reviews of Go Set a Watchman have commented on the fact that, as far as they are concerned, nothing much happens, which is pretty wide of the mark (broadly speaking Go Set a Watchman is about the unpicking of a legend, the way in which a daughter who idolises her father is forced to look at him afresh through adult eyes; in some ways it’s a direct rebuttal of all of the accusations levelled at Atticus by sneerily superior readers of Mockingbird, Atticus being a plastic board idol, etc; it’s almost like Harper Lee knew that To Kill a Mockingbird was from the perspective of a child; Go Set a Watchman is the adult remix).

Jean-Louise (Scout, as was) is on her way home to Maycomb for a visit. She lives these days in New York. Her boyfriend, Hank, resides in Maycomb, and wants to marry her but she isn’t sure. She vacillates. We get the sense of a young woman moving out of adolescence, although still prone to rages and mood swings, and preparing herself for some of the big decisions of life. We hear (and I’m going to say this with only a tiny spoiler alert because lots and lots of reviews have already mentioned it) early on that her brother Jem died of a heart attack a couple of years previously (just as their mother did, just as Harper Lee’s own brother did, make of that what you will). The early chapters of Watchman find a family getting used to each other again, after time apart (in addition to Jean-Louise Atticus – who these days is a 72 year old man struggling with arthritis – and Hank, we meet Atticus’ fusty sister Alexandra, and also a brother, Dr Finch, who is a fan of Victoriana, to the degree that is given to saying things that mark him out as an eccentric – but just as Emily loved Bagpuss so Jean-Louise loves her uncle).    

Something else it’s worth knowing about in advance of reading Go Set a Watchman: who the NAACP are (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and what was going on in the months immediately prior to the action of the book (specifically the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregation of public schools was unconstitutional). The good people of Maycomb, Atticus Finch among them, are worried about what this might mean. Something else that Go Set a Watchman shares with To Kill a Mockingbird: both these books are rites of passage. The Watchman rite of passage concerns an adult Jean-Louise coming to realise that her father isn’t God. That is essentially the narrative arc of the book. If a young woman coming to terms with the frailty and fallibility of her father doesn’t feel like enough for a book – well, that’s on you. It certainly feels like enough to me. Here’s Jean-Louise coming to terms with what she learns:

“I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me – these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me.”

And Jean-Louise is quite a character. When she’s rowing with Hank, when she is sat staring at women her own age, busy to swallow whatever their other halves serve up, we see her at her best:

“You will sat anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth.”

So what of the racism itself? (We’ll immediately dispense with the question of whether Go Set a Watchman is itself a racist book – it isn’t a racist book, Jean-Louise is a vituperative opponent of racism, that roars from the book and I think we are pretty safe in assuming she is the voice of Harper Lee if you want to go down that shaky rope bridge). Jean-Louise sees her father (and Hank, and most of the town respectables) at a Citizen’s meeting, at which a rather racist fellow speaks and not one of them speaks up against him, thereby in her eyes incriminating themselves. She is so revolted she throws up. Later she talks with Hank (Hank is poor, has a hard-won reputation, is doing his best job to rub along with people), Atticus (the first blistering set-to between them is one of the highlights of the book) and Dr Finch (who slaps her, forehand and back and draws blood, and this is dismissed as if it isn’t a big deal – it felt like a big deal to this reader).

The great Is Atticus a racist? row ignited by Michiko Kakutani in the pages of the New York Times isn’t quite as clearcut as the headlines would suggest. He is either not the hero he was or – gasp – he has changed somewhat over the decades between the two books. I can see why that would upset and threaten people; after all, in the real world, everybody stays the same all the time. Forever and in perpetuity. Atticus does not himself spout racist nonsense (Lee employs a mouthpiece for that, and Atticus is quick to dismiss him) but he sits on he other side of the fence from Jean-Louise. Atticus is a mouthpiece for the fear engendered in the community and the fear in the community is palpable on both sides of the proverbial fence (a trip Jean-Louise takes to see Calpurnia, her old childhood nanny is illustrative of that). Dr Finch talks some sense, eventually, and Jean-Louise comes to see her father for the whole man he is, rather than the plaster idol of her youth.

Did I enjoy it as much as To Kill a Mockingbird? No. Am I glad I read it and glad it exists? Yes. Is it interesting, does it complicate To Kill a Mockingbird? Yes and yes. Do I think the people the bookseller who compares this to Stephen Hero is an idiot? Yes – but he’s paying for it, every time he gives disappointed readers their money back. And the disappointed readers themselves? I’m sure there are enough [insert despised author here] books in the world to keep them happy.

Any Cop?: Like the end of The Sopranos, Go Set a Watchman seems to be more than a little divisive – but we are glad we read it and we would recommend you read it too.


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