Harper Lee: Go Set A Watchman

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_I finally got round to acquiring and reading this book, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I think it’s impossible to write about without the shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird hovering in the background, as I can’t imagine anyone who has picked up this book to read without having read the world-famous best-seller. Nevertheless, I will try… (Cue usual spoiler alerts, if needed!)

Firstly, after reading it myself, I cannot recall a single review or article about the book (which henceforth I will refer to in these posts as GSAW) which did it justice: it’s far more interesting and complex than has been allowed. Like TKAM, it’s a novel about growing up.

The heart of the novel is a lengthy, complex, powerful and sustained argument about the racial politics of the Deep South in the early 1950s, that rages between Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her early twenties who now lives in New York but who has returned to Maycomb for a vacation. She argues with her childhood sweetheart (who would be her fiance), her Aunt, her father Atticus and her Uncle Jack. As a young adult she realises that her father and family are not the people she thought they were when she was a child but judges them hypocrites; innocence must be shed, painfully, as part of growing up and becoming a person in one’s own right.

The structure of the novel feels rather loose, especially in the early stages, which are the build-up to the argument outlined above. I didn’t really find Hank, her childhood sweetheart, terribly convincing, either as a character or as a potential husband for Jean Louise, and, interestingly, he almost seems to fade out as the novel works towards its powerful denouement.

The elderly Atticus is crippled by arthritis and looked after by his sister Alexandra; his brother Jack lives close by: Maycomb is a place where you belong or don’t belong, and Jean Louise doesn’t know whether she fits any longer: do you inevitably become an outsider once you leave a place?

Throughout GSAW – though it is in many ways a rougher and less well structured and shaped book than TKAM – there is evidence of real subtletly in character portayal and development; one is aware of the beginnings of the talents that would shine through more clearly in TKAM. The real origins of that successful novel are here, and one is left with the impression of Lee learning on the job.

The tone of the novel is livelier, less leisurely and dreamy than TKAM; there is already some of the dry humour and folksy wisdom that we perhaps came to know and love in that novel. I read it quickly; I couldn’t put it down (I refer you to my remarks on plot in my previous post!); I know I shall go back to it and re-read much more carefully soon.

Next post: Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared.

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