[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]
For those who haven’t read the book, this review has two parts. The first part has no spoilers, the second part has a lot. The second section has a more in-depth analysis, but if you don’t want it to be ruined, just read until the section marked “spoilers ahead”.
As uni students, most of us, at some point, have come home and realised exactly how cramped and flawed it is, metaphorically or physically. A prolonged spell of absence and personal growth means that you return to your childhood bedroom and find it too small, too shabby for you, all the flaws you never saw showing up in stark contrast with your new life. You notice changes you’d never have thought of had you been there to see them made – new wallpaper, a tree chopped down, a favourite shop shut – and it feels, unexpectedly, as though part of the foundation of who you are has been ripped away. We expect our childhood homes and families to stay exactly as they were when we left, locked in stasis as we evolve, and we’re shocked that they don’t. In a way, then, this book is too real, and it’s painful.
Many of us have probably read To Kill A Mockingbird, likely under duress in a GCSE English class. For those who have not – or those who, in time honoured fashion, watched the film instead – To Kill A Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s first, and until now only, novel; a coming-of-age story that isn’t sickly sweet, following young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as she grows up in the American South during the Great Depression. Scout and her older brother Jem are forced to grow up – and apart – as their father, Atticus, is called upon to act as the defence attorney for Tom Robinson – a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl.
To Kill A Mockingbird is often cited as one of the most enduring classics of modern literature, and it would be naïve and foolish to try to avoid the obvious – that its lessons and questions are still relevant today, in an age when almost every day brings a report of a young black person killed or injured, usually by the police, without ever having even been accused of a crime.
Sequel, prequel, both?
Go Set A Watchman is, in one sense, the sequel; it follows Scout, now going by her birth name of Jean Louise, as she returns to Maycomb as an adult and faces the dilemma common to many young adults – realising that childhood innocence simply cannot last. In another sense, it’s a prequel; To Kill A Mockingbird was in fact developed from this book, which was in a way a first draft. Although Go Set A Watchman was written first, To Kill A Mockingbird was partly cannibalised from it – large passages in Go Set A Watchman are word-for-word copied into the older book – and elements of the books simply don’t line up; continuity errors are rife, and this seems in many ways to be a different, alternative, timeline.
Go Set A Watchman was abandoned in favour of To Kill A Mockingbird, and reading it it’s not hard to see why.
It is technically an average book. I’ve certainly read much worse. But when I started to write a summary of the plot for this review I floundered – what actually happened? Answer: Not much.
This is a story which takes place almost wholly in the heads, hearts and souls of the characters. The viewpoint jumps about from paragraph to paragraph, and flashbacks fill the gaps between scenes. Much of the meat of it – the emotional heart of the story – in fact comes from To Kill A Mockingbird. Because I had read the earlier book first, because I knew Scout’s childhood, because I myself had visualised – in pin-sharp detail – the shape of Maycomb’s buildings and the people who filled them, because I had read the book with true immersive acceptance, the plot – centring around Scout’s relationship with her father Atticus – gained an emotional gut punch. If I hadn’t, it would have lost most of what made it so very heartbreaking to read.
And at the sentence level, in terms of the writing – there are some genuinely good turns of phrase, as there is in To Kill A Mockingbird. But for the most part, it’s simply dull – technical, dry, beige prose. The apex of the book, where Jean Louise confronts Atticus, is several pages of speechifying – an argument that completely loses connection to the characters and their situation. It’s not a bad argument, but it seems to be an authorial mouthpiece – a polemic around race relations that doesn’t seem to connect to the actual story on a meaningful level. In addition, the final revelation of Atticus’ intentions, and the last few pages of dialogue, don’t seem to follow on from that argument – and in fact detract from it by taking away any trace of emotional finality.
It’s hard to not compare it to the polished brilliance of To Kill A Mockingbird, and it’s hard to not read it as something of a novice effort. It could have been excellent, but – it never quite seems to get there. It’s helped along by the memory of one of the most loved books of my childhood, and by the love I bear for the characters, but it seems very, very shallow.
So: should you read it?
Absolutely. If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet – do that. And then, read this. If you haven’t read the first one, it won’t have as much strength and you’ll never be able to read To Kill A Mockingbird uncontaminated, but that’s your lookout. As critical as I’ve been here, this is a good book. It pales in comparison to To Kill A Mockingbird, but most things do. Plus, it’s still an important discussion of race – it could have been written last week, in response to the Charleston shootings and to the recent removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina. That’s one of the things that struck me; exactly how relevant this is. It was written decades ago, and Lee never published it (and there is some debate, given that, as to whether this should ever have been published). But it deals with sharply modern questions.
At one point, Uncle Jack says to Jean Louise “Now, at this very moment, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South’s not ready for it – we’re finding ourselves in the same deep waters [as during the Civil War]. As sure as time, history is repeating itself, and as sure as man is man, history is the last place he’ll look for his lessons.”
He was talking about the desegregation of schools. He could have been talking about the confederate flag, or about police brutality or institutional racism.
It’s hard to say more without spoiling it – so in that vein, look away now if you don’t want to be spoiled.
The most brilliant thing about this book, to me, was how painful it was. I read To Kill A Mockingbird some years ago, and I loved it. I especially loved Atticus Finch – loved his tolerance, his compassion, his model of true Christian generosity. He stood up to defend a black man, when he knew he’d be hated for it, even though he didn’t have to.
I reread To Kill A Mockingbird only a week ago. I thought again how amazing Atticus’ character was, and how much I wished more people were like him. In other words, I saw him through Scout’s eyes. She narrates the first book, so it’s hardly surprising that we saw her father as she did – a superhuman man with no faults or flaws.
So to find out that he was a racist – it shocked me to the core, much as it did Scout.
And here the emotional strength of this book lies. We read the first book as Scout. We followed her, her struggles, her growth into a young woman, and we saw the world as she did. To be pulled out of that world, and to see it as it truly was – complex, flawed, and dark – is a shock, and helps to carry the book in a way that the flawed early writing simply couldn’t have done alone. In a sense, that’s really why this book is good – because it’s an almighty plot twist.
But after the climactic (and I use this word doubtfully) final argument, here’s the thing: there’s no resolution. None. Jean Louise doesn’t quite make up with her father, but she certainly doesn’t just leave and never see him again. Plus, her fiancé (who was something of a bolt from the blue, and just doesn’t fit with her character as established in this book, let alone To Kill A Mockingbird) is also revealed as racist, but she doesn’t ever deal with their relationship or sudden lack thereof. Neither does she address her grievances with Aunt Alexandra, who seems to be at least as racist as everyone else if not more so but she doesn’t get a screaming match. The book just… ends.
Does she stay in Maycomb? We don’t know for sure. Does she convince anyone to change their views? We don’t know. But the emotional finality of her breakup with her fiancé and argument with Atticus is frankly totally undermined by the fact that they have another civilised conversation later in which they both seem to ignore it, and she seems to offer him some measure of forgiveness.
And then there’s the post-hoc rationalisation of Atticus’ actions. According to Uncle Jack, he realised that Jean Louise idolised him, and that that was indeed unhealthy, but rather than having a conversation with her he “was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.” Leaving open, of course, the question of Atticus’ true motivation and beliefs, the degree of his bigotry, and the question of why anyone would think that that was a good way to address their daughter’s emotional dependency.
And, on a wider level, given the topics that this book is intended to address it’s worrying how few black characters are given voices here. While To Kill A Mockingbird did feature some characters of colour – maybe not as many or as prominently as could have been wished for, but still some – this book features hardly any. Calpurnia makes a cameo, old and dying, but beyond that there’s almost no non-white characters given lines or actions. And the degree to which the question of the civil rights struggle is being framed in terms of the pain and inconvenience caused to white characters is frankly quite troubling (although a good representation of the attitudes often held by the privileged when faced with oppressed peoples trying to gain recognition).
But despite all that, here’s why I still think you should read it:
This book is so important, because unlike many other works on the subject, it (together with To Kill A Mockingbird) talks about bigotry as it really is.
We don’t like to think we’re bigots. We can’t be. We’re nice people. So the picture that we have in our heads of bigots is a caricature – it’s someone with a swastika tattoo or a KKK hood, someone like Mr Ewell, who stomps around perpetually muttering about the jews/blacks/gays/muslims. It’s an exaggerated picture of what it looks like to be a racist. And therefore, whenever a real-life human is shown to be sexist, racist, homophobic, islamophobic, or generally repellent, people stand up in their defence and say that they just can’t be racist because they are a good parent, or even have been vocal in the defence of other minorities – or have done good work countering bigotry in the past (for instance, many early suffragettes actively opposed granting voting rights to black people, because it helped them look good to white men to throw women of colour under the bus). They can’t be racist, because they are a nice person, so we happily redefine “bigot” to mean “cartoon neonazi” and move on because to do otherwise would be to admit that we ourselves can be bigoted.
Plus, being racist (or any other kind of –ist) isn’t an all or nothing. It’s not like everyone is either Martin Luther King or Hitler. It’s a sliding scale on which absolutely everybody has inbuilt assumptions, prejudices and previously unexamined beliefs and attitudes. It’s about someone who can stand up in court and defend a black man against a racially motivated false accusation, deliver a passionate speech about hypocrisy and prejudice, but many years later turn around and say that white people are inherently more civilised and black people need to be guided by them. Racism isn’t an all-or-nothing, and it isn’t always tied together with other prejudices (although often it is), and it’s not limited to the cartoon rednecks or neonazis we like to imagine (although certainly they exist), and it doesn’t always manifest with genocidal talk or aggressive and violent actions. It can manifest in “benevolent” prejudice, which is certainly a lot harder for someone to recognise in themselves because after all they just want to help those people to become more like us. And it absolutely can appear in the people who we love and value and admire the most.
This is the sense in which Go Set A Watchman has the most value; it serves as a sharp reminder that just because you know someone, and you know they’re a good person, does not mean that you can assume they don’t hold problematic beliefs.
By showing that even Atticus Finch, who has been admired for almost fifty years as a generally good, non-racist person can hold these beliefs and attitudes, the book delivers a sharp reminder that we as a society, and specifically those of us who hold various privileges, need to be honest with ourselves about what those privileges are and whether we’re really as nice as we think we are to those who lack that privilege.
So to sum up: From a literary perspective, it can’t stand alone but as a tag on to To Kill A Mockingbird it’s a worthwhile addition which almost breaks the fourth wall by causing the reader to identify and empathise with Scout’s feelings more keenly, having grown to share her viewpoint in the first book. From a more pragmatic standpoint, it’s a valuable representation of bigotry, and hugely relevant in terms of the current state of race relations in America and worldwide, because this is a conversation which we need to be having.