I was at Waterstones in Piccadilly the night Go set a Watchman was released. Southern music was playing, drinks were being served, there were panel discussions with famous authors and a screening of To kill a Mockingbird was fully booked. It was great; the launch of a new book was as exciting as a film premiere.
Social media was going crazy about….Harper Lee. Instead of Justin Bieber, there were tweets about Truman Capote, instead of Vin Diesel, people were talking about Gregory Peck who plays Atticus Finch,with a nobility to break your heart, in the black and white film.
In short, Go set a watchman was big news. A book, in the era of Facebook, was making headlines.
Never have I opened a book with so much trepidation. This was a companion to literary history. The sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird.
Please be good, I silently intoned. Please don’t be the Star Wars prequels. Please don’t disappoint.
The legend goes that although Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird, it was actually written first. However, Harper Lee’s editor preferred the flashback’s to the protagonist’s childhood and asked Lee to focus on that story. From that request came the classic that has sold over 75 million copies worldwide.
So, Watchman is an old ‘new’ book.
It shows in the writing style. The book evokes, very well, a bygone era with all its attendant social mores. People smoke, go courting and wear hats. Although our heroine Scout prefers not to do the latter.
She’s also not Scout anymore but Jean Louise Finch, 26 year old career woman. She lives in New York, doing some job that is not defined, doesn’t even notice the negroes, Jews and Italians she comes into daily contact with because she’s colour blind and only returns to Maycombe annually to see her father. Atticus is still active but now old and his health is failing.
The book is about one such trip back home.
The first part of the story sets up an unconvincing and rather dull romance with a hard working lawyer called Henry Clinton. For some reason he is in love with Jean Louise who is largely charmless throughout the book ( perhaps Clinton read Mockingbird and fell for Scout).
The book takes a leisurely stroll through the turgid romance and the characters of the old town before moving to the ‘discovery’ that Jean Louise makes about Clinton, her old neighbours and most of all, Atticus.
You already know the spoilers: her brother Jem is dead and Atticus is revealed to be a ‘racist’. You know the latter because it is what the reviews and media latched on to.
People on social media who only ever read 140 character messages on Twitter declared angrily that they would not read the book because of this bombshell.
How could Atticus Finch, the bastion of all that is just, true and noble in the world be racist?
You have to read the book to see what Atticus is and isn’t, what he believes and doesn’t. And you have to put him in the context of the politics and history of his time to understand what he is.
Go set a Watchman ( the title comes from a bible verse and relates to one’s conscience) is a well meaning book and it sets its arguments about race very fairly. No one is an absolute hero or absolute villain.
It doesn’t have the magical charm of To kill a mockingbird because it is not told through a child’s honest eyes. Rather like adulthood itself, the book is self conscious, at times self righteous and preachy. Characters give long winded speeches to explain themselves rather than speak normally and there is no real plot to follow.
There are two stand out chapters, one about possible teenage pregnancy is laugh out loud funny and one about a ladies coffee morning is beautifully observed.
Otherwise it does read like a first book.
Is it a worthy companion to Mockingbird? Read it and see. Everyone is likely to have a different take on that.