Review of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman
Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. Photo: Hannah McKay/PA Wire/AP
I was in a hotel room in Melbourne when the news broke that a sequel to Harper Lee’s literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird was being published. I was equally excited and nervous, and pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman despite my misgivings:

  • Almost as soon as the announcement was made about a new book, there were allegations that Harper Lee was being taken advantage of in her old age and failing health. The manuscript conveniently resurfaced after the death of Lee’s sister Alice, who had protected Harper for years. (EDIT: Jamie Ford has blogged about the timeline of events leading to this new book’s publication.)
  • Although promoted as a sequel, Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Upon reading this manuscript, Lee’s editor suggested she write a more interesting novel from the young Scout Finch’s perspective, and thus Mockingbird was born.
  • Go Set a Watchman has been published as originally written, without revisions. As a writer myself, I can tell you that if I published a novel without revising it a few times, it would be far from the best it could be.
  • In the week leading up to Go Set a Watchman’s release, reports began to emerge that Atticus Finch had grown into a racist old man.

Go Set a Watchman, set in the 1950s, takes place some two decades after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout, who now goes by her birth name of Jean Louise Finch, is returning home from New York to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her elderly father Atticus. She is greeted by Henry “Hank” Clinton, who courts Jean Louise during her trips home and wants to marry her. Hank has become a surrogate son to Atticus since working with him at his law firm. Jem Finch, Scout’s brother, died two years earlier.

At times the manuscript takes a meandering path to get to the point. It’s not until Chapter 8 that Jean Louise discovers a racist pamphlet in Atticus’ house and learns that both Atticus and Hank are members of the local White Citizens’ Council. This is where the story really begins. It’s a story of loss and disillusionment — Jem and Dill are gone (except in flashback), and the people Jean Louise has left have betrayed her idealistic notions of them.

Unlike Mockingbird — which sizzled with Scout as its sharp, wide-eyed narrator — Watchman is told in the third person, creating a certain distance between the characters and the readers. Watchman is not badly written, but it lacks the magic that made Mockingbird so memorable and engaging. I believe Watchman is a gathering of Lee’s ideas, which were yet to be crafted and polished. There are references to events in Mockingbird, but also discrepancies (such as the verdict of Tom Robinson’s rape trial), indicating that Mockingbird’s plot was yet to take shape.

It’s also worth nothing that characters change as the stories we write evolve, and Watchman represents a story in its infancy, before the author was even sure what story she wanted to tell. I’ve just completed the first draft of a novel, and by the time I’m ready to pitch it to agents and publishers and pray for a contract, it will probably look very different. Kate Grenville, one of Australia’s most successful authors, has been known to redraft her manuscripts 27 times.

So my advice — should you choose to read Go Set a Watchman — would be to read it not as a sequel, but for an insight into the writing process. It’s basically an early draft of what was, and is, a great book.

3 out of 5 stars.

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3 Replies to “Review of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee”

  1. Interesting Lee-Ann. I am intrigued, but I think your advice is right, we need to read it for what it is. I think I’m going to have to read it!

  2. (Posted on your FB also Ms. Khoh)

    In this day and age, for appreciators of the written word, it is exciting to see a novel create such a stir. Granted, any sequel/prequel or book from Harper Lee would be an event, but this is quite something. You make good points in your review Lee, and best of luck with your own novel; I look forward to reading it (is there a character in there an Irish rock’n’roll lovin’ dude?^^)

  3. Hi Jodi – I’d be keen to hear your thoughts if you read it. 🙂

    Gearoid – Thanks for dropping by, ego and all. 😛 No Irish rocker, but there is music in the story… I don’t know if my manuscript will be deemed worthy of publication, but I figured I might as well fill my first novel with things I love.

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