Book Review: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman…

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me,

Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

Isaiah, 21:6

 

It has been a momentous week in the world of books. The arrival of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee has sparked a wildfire of sales and a torrent of opinions and it has EVERYONE talking! To Kill a Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies worldwide and there is so much love for Lee’s characters that one could be forgiven for mistaking them for real people. Mockingbird is one of the most read, studied and talked about books ever. When it was announced in February this year that Go Set a Watchman was to be published, the fans and the cynics came out in equal numbers stating their excitement, nerves, and scepticism surrounding the ‘new-found’ manuscript. The novel – written by Lee – was completed before To Kill a Mockingbird but is set twenty years later with the beloved character Scout as an adult. Let’s be honest – no matter the circumstances surrounding the release of Watchman, people were always going to have mixed feelings. I have read many reviews and articles this week and while I have kept their opinions in the back of my mind, I am going to write about the two titles as I have just experienced them… at the end of the day none of it really matters. Watchman is here to stay so we may as well settle back and see what all the fuss is about…

9781785150289 Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

As I mentioned earlier this week, I had never read To Kill a Mockingbird before now. It wasn’t a text I studied at school or at university and while I have owned a copy for many years, it just never made it to the top of my reading pile. With the release of Watchman looming ahead, it was definitely the right time to read it. It is impossible to read a book like that and ignore everything I know about it. Without meaning too, I went into it with an expectation that I would be greeted with excellence, that I would be shocked or outraged and that I would instantly fall in love. I was in no way disappointed with what I read but I have very mixed feelings towards it.

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.” - Scout

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” – Scout

Without a doubt, Scout is the highlight of the book; her charm is in her naivety and the simple way she views the world. She is blunt and honest but her childhood curiosity and imagination is a joy to read. Lee certainly captures the essence of childhood with all its complexities; Jem’s transition from child to adolescent made me laugh out aloud many times. He swayed from love to hate in the blink of an eye. I loved how seriously he took his role of protector and educator of Scout. Together, they were the highlight of story. On the other hand, I find Atticus a very confusing character. Throughout the whole book I felt as though he was sitting on a pedestal and as the reader I was meant to adore him in the same way the other characters did. Don’t get me wrong, he is a fabulous character and I am not suggesting that he isn’t but it took until the end of Watchman when Scout is abusing him that she put into words what I had been feeling but I won’t go into that now so I don’t spoil anything for those who haven’t read it yet!

“Gentlemen, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

 My disappointment (for lack of a better word) came from my own reaction to the themes and issues covered in the book surrounding the trial and the racism towards the black townsfolk of Maycomb. Is it sad that I wasn’t shocked? There were times I found the language unsettling – as I did recently with Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride – but I wasn’t surprised by the attitudes and actions of the citizens of Maycomb. I can see why it would have made such an impact at the time of publication because Lee is holding up a mirror for people to see what their behaviour looks like. That would have been extremely confronting for people, as they tend to see what they want to see, which is often not what is right in front of them. Do I belong to a generation that is de-sensitised in a way, incapable of being surprised at the lengths people go to make others suffer? I have studied Twentieth Century History at length and had the opportunity to visit both Auschwitz in Poland and Ground Zero in New York. Both experiences were confronting and highly upsetting and I had quite a physical reaction to both. The sad thing is that racism is nothing new and while we have come a long way since the attitudes in Mockingbird, we still have such a long way to go.

“You deny that they’re human.”

“How so?”

“You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart.”

I feel like this was the point Harper Lee is making in Go Set a Watchman. I was a little unsure at the start of the book if Lee actually wrote it. Keeping in mind that she wrote it before Mockingbird, the tone and the language were completely different to what I had just read in Mockingbird. The further into the story you get, the more Lee (as she is known in Mockingbird) starts to come through. Most of the same characters are in Go Set a Watchman and Scout is the main focus, although the story is told in third person this time. It took me much longer to get into Watchman than it did for Mockingbird. The characters are the same but also different; they are that bit older, wearier and cautious. Their attitudes and opinions have changed and while a lot of focus has been placed on Atticus, I think Scout is the most interesting character. Unsurprisingly, she may be twenty years older but she doesn’t seem any wiser nor has she really grown up. She is still the lively and impulsive little girl from Mockingbird and still believes that she is her own person and deserves to act as such. Her naïve view of the world – seen through ‘colour blind’ eyes – is pushed to the limits when she returns to Maycomb as it appears that the small town is more backwards than before including those closest to her.

“The white supremacists fear reason, because they know cold reason beats them. Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

There were times in Watchman where I struggled to follow where the story was going. Parts of the text were confusing and a little unclear in terms of who was talking or moving the story forward. It isn’t a long book but it took until the last four or five chapters before I was fully engaged with the story and the characters finally did something! I loved the final moments between Scout and Uncle Jack and Scout and Atticus – I think what Lee does there is clever and a fabulous piece of writing! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the manuscript was published in good or bad faith. It is a piece of history that has come to light and I for one, think that’s a very good thing. While Go Set a Watchman is possibly not for the purists, I am very glad to have read it!

 

“Every man’s Island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.”

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman…

  1. Hi Bookkat,

    Thanks for your honest and well reasoned review. I have always held “Mockingbird” close to my heart as it was and is still relevant on so many levels. Its championing of equality whether that be amongst race or gender was highly controversial yet so simply right. That championing is still relevant today all around the world and especially here in Australia in light of the protests happening this weekend.

    The issue of language that you highlight in your review is a really important one. You were shocked by some of it (and rightly so) but that un edited un altered language is so very important as it is a window on the past and documents the social history and mores of the time. It shows us in many ways how far we have come as a society that language used within my life time is now recognised for its discrimination and the “soft” indoctrination to racist behaviour that it fed.

    I haven’t read “watchman” yet but will once I can buy a copy at ease. The issue with :watchman” as discussed on Libby Gores Sunday morning program last week (12/07/2015) on 774 ABC Melbourne is that apart from typographical errors it had not been through an editing process. The whole manuscript was written on a type writer and the publisher felt that Harper Lee was not up to the process of editing it. So in many ways it is published “raw” and that ma add to the ability of the reader to engage early in the novel with the characters and the plot. In my case when that happens to me I put the book down for twenty four hours and then go back and start again. I have on occasion done this three or four times and on the final effort “got the story line” A book that springs to mind for me having to do this is the Leon Uris novel “Trinity”. On the fourth attempt I melded with the characters and read this huge and powerful novel in two sittings. It became a favourite and will be until my dying day.

    I am glad you persevered with both books and gave us this splendid review.

    Thanks,

    PatrickC

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    • Thank you Patrick – I am glad you liked it. Reading Mockingbird so late in the game was frightening as it is one of the most revered books in english literature. The more hype a book has, the more I tend to resist unless I get to it early. It is a text – like so many classics – that transcend the time they were written to be relevant in years to come. How is it that race is still an issue more than 50 years after Mockingbird was published – have we not learnt anything?! I hope that when you finally sit down to Watchman that you enjoy it and that it brings you a small amount of the pleasure Mockingbird did – happy reading!

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