I didn’t realise how much respect I had for Go Set A Watchman until I finished the last sentence and paused, thinking about what I had just read. A plethora of emotions passed through me as I turned through its pages – boredom at first, then outrage, confusion and, finally, conflicted satisfaction. You might not understand at first where Harper Lee is going with the sequel to the incomparable To Kill A Mockingbird, you might (like I did) hate it and yearn for the familiarity of Scout, Jem and Dill’s jaunts, but part of that might come from our unwillingness as readers to accept that Maycomb has moved on, that Scout has grown up. Her transition into adulthood brings more realisations than when she was running rampant with her brother.
Go Set A Watchman doesn’t pull any punches. Lee returns her readers to Maycomb, where Scout finds herself out-of-place, her family home relocated and an aged arthritic Atticus greeting her. As if to reflect Scout’s unfamiliarity with Maycomb, no longer do you feel saturated in the atmosphere of the small town; everything seems shallower and only half-described, as if waiting to be fleshed out by Lee’s pen. Whilst the description might not be fulfilling (I found myself waiting for more depth on more than one occasion) and Scout’s inner struggle doesn’t express itself with the subtle dexterity I would expect from Lee the purpose of the book is one with merit and courage. Knocking down one of modern literature’s most iconic characters takes a certain degree of integrity; knowing that there was another chapter left for the residents of Maycomb in the civil rights movement that couldn’t be left untold; knowing that the readers deserved to know that Atticus isn’t without fault. Lee isn’t treating us like children.
Whilst Lee continues to shine at painting character portraits in the deceptively shallow Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Finch, the black sheep of Maycomb, some of the explanations Lee attempts to give wind up being convoluted and incomprehensible, serving no purpose but for us to wonder where she’s heading. Most disappointing was the callous disregard with which Jem’s death was treated, the effect it had on Scout and Atticus swiftly bypassed along with Calpurnia’s heart-breaking animosity towards the Finches. The book does redeem itself, however, with Scout’s startling realisation we all come to at some point in our lives: our parents are human, with their own flaws – not infallible as they may have seemed in our childhood. Some reviews have blown Atticus’ attitude towards the civil rights movement out of proportion. No, he isn’t racist in the way the KKK are. His kind of racism is a mix of condescending, suffocating paternalism, of fear of the voice of the black people in Maycomb and the influence they could carry if they were immediately granted the same rights as the white residents of Maycomb. Atticus effectively pats the heads of Calpurnia and her community and says “you can have your rights, just be patient”.
This review might have been double-edged, but one thing is for sure: gushing over Mockingbird is never going to be the same.
Featured images from breakingnews.com and The Fiscal Times.