Go Set A Watchman is the most anticipated book of 2015. Ever since it was announced that Harper Lee would be publishing a second novel, I, for one, eagerly anticipated its arrival.
Harper Lee’s first and Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) is possibly the most beloved book of American history – some polls have it even more popular than the bible. Generations of New Zealander’s studied To Kill A Mockingbird at high school, and I clearly recall reading, and falling in love with, the novel aged 13.
To Kill A Mockingbird showcased a writer not only of great talent, but one that gave generations of readers a hero in Atticus Finch, symbolic of America’s moral conscience in the move towards racial equality.
It’s little wonder, after the unparalleled success of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee declined – until recently – to ever publish another novel.
Go Set A Watchman picks up 20 years after Mockingbird. Scout aged 26 (now mostly called Jean Louise) returns home to Maycomb, to see her father. While there she discovers he’s not quite the man she thought he was (breaking all our hearts).
Set in small town Alabama in 1952, with a backdrop of one of the most monumental changes in American society, amidst increasing civil rights tensions, the novel explores prejudices between races, generations and the North and the South. This is a story about growing up, releasing your parents aren’t idols, but fellow humans, and deciding to love them anyway.
Which is great fodder for a novel, it’s just not that well executed. Without its tie with its famous sister, To Kill A Mockingbird, this novel would never have been published. Taken on it’s own, Go Set A Watchman is thin, stiff, and with an oddly uneven plot. Worse, it can be considered dated and clichéd. Atticus racial position’s impossible to stomach in today’s climate. He utters things like, “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
Just where Go Set a Watchman came from has produced a number of conflicting theories. The publishers put forward the theory that this novel was ‘discovered’ and bought to light by Lee’s new protector, Tonja Carter, in 2014, after Lee’s sister and long-time protector, Alice, passed away. Another theory is that Go Set A Watchman (1956) was a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, in which a clever editor saw great potential and advised Lee to scrap it and start again with Scout’s childhood. But there are those who are suspicious of that theory – why then does Go Set A Watchman flash back to Scout’s childhood? What is this supposed to explain if not characters we already know and love? Could it then be a first draft, but one written after Mockingbird, designed to explain a grown up Scout and her father and later abandoned by Lee? Whatever the true origin of the book, it’s not a polished novel.
And Lee is not telling. Aged 89, frail and living in a care facility in her hometown, she’s declining all comment. One can only hope she is reaping some financial rewards from going back on her own vow never to publish another novel.
The serious pre-publication hype has done its job – the novel immediately almost immediately became number one on America’s bestsellers list. But it shouldn’t be. If you want to enjoy Harper Lee’s witty, sharp and luminous writing skip Go Set A Watchman and re-read To Kill A Mockingbird.