Thursday, 6 August 2015

I should have listened to the watchman: A book review

Like hordes of other book consumers, I recently devoured Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. And I feel a bit grubby about it. It didn’t exactly give me a pain in the gut… or the heart… it was my conscience that ached. 

With all the controversy about whether Lee was duped into agreeing to publish her manuscript by a greedy relative and/or lawyer and/or agent and/or publisher, the morally sound course of action would’ve been to refuse to pay for the novel. But I desperately wanted to read it. And I’m way too impatient to hang around until our ill-equipped local library found the time to purchase and process it. Besides, by the time the book landed on July 14th the library reservations list was already heavy with equally-curious readers. Mine would have been a long wait. So I visited the local bookshop and bought a copy.

The winter weather gods have been particularly wintery this year. They seem to be taking special delight in dealing out Saturdays that are snap-frozen followed by mostly sodden Sundays. Perfect reading weather. An anticipated book always deserves an extended first sitting.

And a pot of tea.

Or a bottle of wine.

Before I started, I knew that Atticus is revealed to be racist. Or rather that the Atticus of this manuscript is racist. Because this is not a sequel, even though it has been published after Mockingbird, and despite the fact that the narrator—then Scout now Jean Louise­­—has grown to adulthood. So Atticus isn’t a person who’s changed his mind. If we are to believe that this is the first rejected version of life in Maycomb, Alabama, then this is not a changed Atticus, but a different Atticus – a completely different character in a different time (as is the confusing Calpurnia). This is a different plot in a different manuscript. A weaker manuscript. I knew that, yet as I read, my love for the Mockingbird Atticus Finch still had me hoping there’d be a plausible reason for him to be closed-minded. (There isn’t.)

So what did I think of Go Set a Watchman? I thought it was patchy and largely unconvincing. There were certainly chunks of engaging writing… bits here and there… not pages and pages. I thought much of the dialogue was more like diatribe, and found some of the characters to be so sketchy that their motivation was unclear… or absent. Quite honestly, I didn’t care what happened to any of them. I was not absorbed into their world.

At several points, I found myself wondering whether what I’d just read would make sense if I wasn’t already familiar with the events and characters of Mockingbird.  And towards the end… well… it all became so awful that I struggled to believe Harper Lee wrote that bit at all. The conspiracy theory that other writers cobbled together what Harper Lee had left incomplete—or had abandoned — is more credible than some of the conversations and actions of the characters. 

So did I enjoy the book?

Yeah, sort of. Nobody was forcing me to finish it, I did so of my own accord.

Would I recommend it?

Only for the curiosity factor… or as a comparative study with Mockingbird to teach editing.

Should I have waited in line to borrow it?

Yes. I should have listened to the watchman.

The blurb trumpets that this is ‘ a landmark new novel’ that ‘imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee’. That Go Set a Watchman serves as an ‘essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to a classic’.


This is not a ‘new novel’. It’s a flawed manuscript. And as it creates very little sense of either time or place, it fails to add any ‘depth’, ‘context’ or ‘meaning’ to Mockingbird. Zilch. Nada. Mockingbird doesn’t need any of that anyway.

Those responsible for publishing this work clearly did not heed the Biblical inspiration for the title:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.  (Isaiah 21:6)

Me-thinks all they saw-eth was dollar signs.

This feels like a well-orchestrated cash-grab… and I fell for it.

What about you? Have you read it? Do you intend to?
Do you think I’m being harsh? 
Are you going to take a stand and not read it? 
I’d love to know.


  1. I was as excited as person could be when I heard about this publication. It was almost almost as exciting as the announcement of a newly discovered never before heard Beatles track. Thrilling. I pre-ordered it very very early on from Readings and then I think it may have been the very next day that I heard about the possibility of Harper Lee being coerced. And I felt sick. So when the book arrived, in its pretty, natty, first edition, canvas bag, I was all excited once again. A new book. But then again, I was also filled with dread. Ready to go. But not. And that's where I have stayed. I can't open it. I don't know if I can go there. Torn I am. I know, though that I eventually will and I know not to expect anything like greatness.

  2. I haven't rushed to obtain a copy mainly because I have questions about it that you have raised, i.e was she coerced, was it just a money grabbing opportunity that was seized? To have waited so long before publishing suggests to me that it was never going to be as good as Mocking Bird and as such it should have been left where it was.

    1. You're welcome to borrow my copy if you like...

  3. Clearly I was out of the loop and didn't know this book was coming out until I heard a radio interview last night with a book store owner who was refunding people their money if they had pre-ordered the book due to the hype and then were disappointed with what the book was actually about. I will put my name on the long list at the library after reading your review, but I am not sure I want to read about Atticus the racist. I loved the Atticus in Mockingbird (or maybe I love Gregory Peck) so that is going to be a hard concept to wrap my head around.

  4. why don't you borrow my copy after Wendy? We could be the sisterhood of the travelling book!