Since Atlanta she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical.
Harper Lee was always the authorial one-hit wonder and my what a hit To Kill A Mockingbird was! But when it was announced last year that her unpublished debut and sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird had been found, the literary world went into overdrive. Go Set A Watchman was Lee’s original book submission and, under the influence of her publisher, was the piece of work that spawned one of the greatest books of our time. The chance to revisit Maycomb and the characters I loved was an opportunity too good to miss and so, with an open mind garnered by early reviews, I indulged and began my journey back to Maycomb County.
It’s difficult to know how I feel about this book, even now, because there were some things that I absolutely I loved about it as well as things that intrigued me and things that I will gladly forget. What I will say is that this book in no way affected my deep-rooted love for To Kill A Mockingbird. I agree with several critical reviews in that Go Set A Watchman shouldn’t be read as a sequel to TKAM at all. If you dive into it with the view that it is a piece of literary interest and a starting point to one of the greatest novels written then it is a fascinating read. It was a fun exercise to see the small indicators and narrative sparks that lit the idea behind Lee’s true novel and that’s how I believe this work should be viewed. And it saves a lot of heartache believe me!
Lee’s matter-of-fact narrative style and observational humour was gloriously intact and it was so comforting to see its presence even in this early work. There are clear indications of the book that was to come and the strengths of the narrative particularly shone in the flashbacks and in the character of Scout. She was everything you hoped she’d be as an adult – strong, wild and headstrong, a woman who takes no prisoners and who refuses to conform to what society thinks she should be. And yet there’s a beautiful vulnerability to her, particularly in her realisation of Atticus as an imperfect person rather than the god-like father she believed him to be.
There’s been a lot of debate on the post-Mockingbird Atticus and I must admit his portrayal in Watchman is one I am happy to ignore. I don’t believe that the moral man most readers have respected and adored for decades would grow into the elderly ball of prejudice he is in this novel. I just don’t. As such, I detached myself from emotionally embracing Atticus the way I would otherwise but alternatively, as an exercise of empathising with Scout’s internal turmoil, Lee succeeds with Atticus with bells on. Realising that your parents are just people is one of the toughest lessons a child can learn and Scout has to come to terms with her imperfect father, as do the readers who have loved and admired Atticus since time out of mind. It’s brutal and unfeeling but for the point being made, it’s necessary.
For me, this isn’t a sequel or a second novel. It is exactly what it was, a draft with literary significance. To read Go Set A Watchman is a fascinating exercise in seeing where a novel came from not where it then went. I loved looking for the sections that, I think, went on to spark the editor’s conversation with Lee on developing a new angle on the novel. And what a story was then born!