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.
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.