Review: Go Set a Watchman

It was probably the most anticipated book release ever. Literally. I cannot think of another book that has had so much expectation and excitement build around it. And yesterday, one week after its release I finished off Go Set a Watchman.

Image by Mark Hillary (https://www.flickr.com/photos/markhillary/19069224923/)

Image by Mark Hillary (https://www.flickr.com/photos/markhillary/19069224923/)

Following on from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird it was always inevitable that Go Set a Watchman would be compared to the early classic. And in doing so I think the book was always set up to fail — not just because of its expectations but also because of the nature of the work. While billed as a sequel Watchman was actually written before Mockingbirdit was Lee’s first draft of the original book. Sent back to her with requests for changes, Lee then went back to the drawing board, spending two more years to write the book we all love today.

So Watchman was already at a disadvantage. It was not a sequel, but rather Mockingbird’s first draft. And as all good authors know, first drafts are rarely the things you want published.

I feel this context is important because most of the reviews I’ve read of Watchman have lamented the differences between it and Mockingbird. The book is clearly not as polished, is in a different voice (third instead of first) and there are significant changes to the two major characters (ones I’m not sure people will ever get over). While I think these comparisons are interesting however (a little more on that later) I think it is worth reading Watchman on its own as well.

Warning: Spoilers from here on in

Watchman follows Jean Louise (or Scout as most of us know her) as an adult returning back to Maycomb County in Alabama for holiday. Grown up, Jean Louise now lives in New York and visits her father Atticus, aunt Alexandra and potential suitor Hank on regular holidays (for those who have read Mockingbird Scout’s brother Jem has passed away in this book).

This visit is set in the mid fifties in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that invalidated the ‘separate but equal’ argument that allowed Southern States to get away with racial segregation. You can feel the tension in the community, which Lee draws out particularly well in a scene in which Jean Louise finds herself estranged with her former maid Calpurnia.

It is in this setting that Jean Louise finds herself shocked as she sees Atticus and Hank attend a local meeting opposing the Supreme Court’s decision. In the meeting a man gets up and spews a whole lot of racist materials and Jean Louise sits stunned as her father listens attentively.

Watchman is a book about a child finally realising her father is not as ideal as she once thought. It is about her realising that he is complex, a little hypocritical and not as virtuous as she once thought. In this way Watchman presents a really interesting and complex story set in a really and complex backdrop. 

The problem is though that I don’t think Lee fails to bring the reader on this journey. The writing, and in particular the dialogue, is often a little stilted and the explanation for Jean Louise’s thoughts and actions, to me, are often unconvincing. She seems to swing from one idea to the next with little reasonable explanation as to what is going on.

For me this is because I think Lee’s main characters — Jean Louise, Atticus, and to some extent Hank, are deeply undeveloped. Jean Louise in particular to me remains unconvincing, and I often saw her more as a child than a grown woman. That is how a lot of other characters still speak to her, and it is how I saw her. I could not picture her driving or smoking cigarettes for example. Part of this, I think, is because I still see Scout in Mockingbird (it’s impossible to get your mind off the original), but also I think it is because of Lee’s writing. It is no wonder that Lee’s original publisher came back and suggested she write the book set twenty years earlier where Jean Louise is actually a child.

The other problem I have is with the flashbacks. In numerous occasions Lee takes us back to Jean Louise’s time as a child. In many ways this is some of her best writing, but the scenes seem out of place and don’t connect with the story we are being told right now. You would, for example, expect a flashback about the rape case Atticus defends while Jean Louise is a child (which becomes the centre of Mockingbird) as that gives us a picture of the image Jean Louise has of her father. But we only get that in passing, instead seeing scenes of Scout playing with Jem and their friend Dill. I found myself wanting to skip ahead to get to the substantive story.

I feel awful saying all of this because I love Mockingbird. It is a cliche to say it but it is definitely one of my favourite books. Given this in some ways I can see why people are upset about  Watchman.

But here’s the thing. Despite my critiques above, Watchman is  not a bad book. It was a really enjoyable read and the context and story were fascinating. For a first draft I am a little blown away.

That is why I value Watchman’s release. I am fascinated by Lee’s process from Watchman to Mockingbird. Why did she change her voice, and the perspectives of the characters and how did she develop the unique voice she gave her characters? 

Watchman is a fascinating study in the progress of a book and how work, editing and publishing can make something so very different. As someone drafting a book myself it is a process I am going through myself and one I loved to explore reading Watchman. So Watchman has a dual purpose — not only is it a good read but it is a fascinating study in the creation of literature. Lee has literally published her first draft of a book and in doing so we can see the insides of publishing in ways we rarely get to. For that fact alone Watchman is worth it. 

I will finish there, that is enough rambling.

Go Set a Watchman: 3 stars.   

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