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Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee



I was not thrilled to read this book. My book group chose it as their August read and in all honesty I was planning on giving it a miss – but after failing to read Love in the Time of Cholera  by  Gabriel García Márquez, I didn’t want to miss another meeting. So with some reluctance, I bought it.

Now, I admit – To Kill a Mockingbird is not my favourite book. It was good, I enjoyed it – but it isn’t  a book that I absolutely love. It’s just a good book, worthy of its praise especially given the time in which it was written. So I did not get that excited when a ‘sequel’ was announced especially reading about the whole hoopla surrounding the publication. It was just so predictable. Everyone got super excited and then it seemed to fall kind of flat because naturally it did not live up to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and many people seemed disappointed.

Go Set a Watchman, is in a very simplistic term – boring. It is a good thing the book is so short because otherwise I could never have forced myself through such dribble. There were paragraphs I skipped over just to hurry though certain parts a bit quicker because I just couldn’t care less. In Mockingbird I cared about Scout, Jem and Atticus – in this book I couldn’t give a hoot.

There is evidence in this book that Lee is a good author – there are parts, especially the parts where she is looking back into Jean-Louise’s  childhood that really shine through which is perhaps why Lee decided to take the story back to when they were children in Mockingbird. The rest of it was a meandering argument she seemed to be having mostly with herself that was resolved in a slightly limp-wristed way.

If you don’t already know – the main gist of the story is that Jean Louise is returning home to visit her aging father Atticus who we all of course know as the hero standing up for a black man accused of rape. Home is also with her aunt Zandra and boyfriend Henry Clinton. All her life she (as well as countless of other readers) have looked up to Atticus as the upholder of moral values – only to discover that he isn’t that at all. He is in fact, slightly racist.

As I said – the book seems to serve the purpose of talking out an argument that Harper Lee has going on in her head. It is set during the time when black people have been awarded the vote. Now – if your memory for history is a little shady as you’ve been out of school for a while and civil rights was only a small part of your education anyway, the political background of this book is quite hard to easily grasp. It was written in a time when the context would have been relevant and more interesting. Published for today’s audience – it comes across as a little flat. Unlike Mockingbird, Watchman is not timeless – it is very much of its time.

Ultimately too – the characters are people of their time and their opinions as it turns out do not actually match with our twenty-first century opinions which have moved on (for most decent people anyway) from rather out-dated ways of thinking. Whilst Jean-Louise looks at her father in shock and horror when she discovers he is not quite the defender of black rights as she believed him to be – we too can look at her as not completely free of prejudice either.

This book will not live on as Mockingbird has done – a short very profitable exercise for its publishers and soon charity shop fodder. Although it is interesting as a study to almost experience ourselves the knowledge that our parents are not perfect and just fallible humans who get things wrong and may not be the people we thought them to be. We all go through that when we grow up – being able to see our parents as people behind the names of Mum and Dad. We as readers got to see Atticus in a different light, through an adult Scout’s eyes.

It is a shame that Lee did not return to this work and re-write it after Mockingbird because you can see that she is a fantastic writer. This work felt unfinished and unpolished. Had she spent some time re-writing it and expanding it then it would have been a better book. As it is presented to us now – in its original and untouched form it is just a disappointment. Not a disappointment in that I was expecting something better – I wasn’t – just a disappointment in what it could have been. I am not saying that I would have wanted a touched up version by some editor who may have tried to make Atticus less racist – it is good to get the unadulterated form – if it had to be published at all. it is just a pity in my opinion, that it was in the first place.

My book group was not overly keen on it either – it received a unanimous “meh” factor – but great to discuss at the very least.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 19/10/2015 22:14

    My thoughts exactly why I won’t read it:

    Now, I admit – To Kill a Mockingbird is not my favourite book. It was good, I enjoyed it – but it isn’t a book that I absolutely love. It’s just a good book, worthy of its praise especially given the time in which it was written.

    That is unless someone wants to for my podcast, I’m thinking one of my aunts might want to, ha!

  2. 20/10/2015 01:59

    I think To Kill a Mockingbird caught me at a good time in my life, when I was young enough not to fret too much about its flaws, but old enough to appreciate how nicely it was put together. I wanted to love Go Set a Watchman too — look how pretty that cover is and how nicely it would match my TKAM cover! — but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    21/10/2015 12:46

    I didn’t like this book, either, but I did love TKAM. Like Jenny, maybe it was the right book at the right time, but even when I read it again a few years ago, I loved it still. I think TKAM is more about growing up in the South, with a trial as a side note, and GSAW is not about that and therefore loses the charm.

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