(no spoilers below so keep reading)
If you’re even vaguely into books, you’ve probably heard that earlier this year a long-lost unpublished manuscript by Harper Lee was discovered. You’ll also remember that Harper Lee was the author of the much-acclaimed and award winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird which was published in 1960. It was her only published book. Over fifty years later this lost manuscript is her second novel, Go Set a Watchman.
Now, I did try to resist reading other reviews of Go Set a Watchman to try and have a fair and balanced opinion of the book. What I did do, was go back and read To Kill a Mockingbird again to reacquaint myself with the story and the characters. It had probably been close to 20 years since I first read it, and honestly, beyond remembering the names of the main characters and that of Boo Radley, I really couldn’t remember too much of the plot line. I’m definitely glad I re-read it, but it is not a pre-requisite for Go Set a Watchman.
Written in the 1950’s and set when the main character in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean-Louise is twenty-six, Go Set a Watchman is the original manuscript Harper Lee submitted for publishing. That manuscript often jumps back to Jean-Louise’s childhood, and thus her editor at the time suggest she re-write the story from the point of view of her as an eight-year old, and thus, To Kill a Mockingbird was born.
In Go Set a Watchman, Jean-Louise Finch returns home to Maycomb county, Alabama from New York city for a visit with her ailing father, Atticus Finch. Many of the secondary (and even tertiary) characters from To Kill a Mockingbird become central in the plot line, which seems to ramble and go on at length describing events that are less than relevant. Once the story really gets going, and trust me, this is well into the book, it is really about Jean-Louise’s struggle to understand her father, recognizing that perhaps he is not quite the man she had once idolized as a child.
What the book is not, is as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, even if it feels like it could be. In fact, beyond the character names and the location, the two books are basically unrelated. Both however, deal with the central issue of civil rights and race in the South, but in very different ways.
Many critics of Go Set a Watchman, were displeased with the portrayal of Atticus Finch. I did read that somewhere before I read the book, so I had that in the back of my head. But what I hadn’t expected was my discovery that Jean-Louise is perhaps the ‘Atticus Finch’ of this book. She, like her father in To Kill a Mockingbird, lives to a higher standard and this is her internal struggle, set against the backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement within Go Set a Watchman.
It’s written in the third person but seems to jump to the first-person on a regular basis, often within the same paragraph, which I personally found a little unusual. This is not a page turner by any means. If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, you will be disappointed. If you thought To Kill a Mockingbird was OK, you might read Go Set a Watchman, like I did, out of sheer curiosity. It’s authentically written in 1950’s prose, so that in itself makes it more interesting than most books. If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird (how did you graduate high school?) and are deciding which to read first, skip Go Set a Watchman and read the classic.