Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee: Book Review

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of those books that everybody’s read at some point or another in their lives (and if you haven’t you should be ashamed of yourself), and until now, Harper Lee hasn’t published any other work. However, two days ago came the release of Go Set a Watchman, the supposed sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after the events of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and follows the return of an adult Scout – now known as Jean Louise – to Maycomb.

Despite being published some 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman was written around the same time, and it’s debatable whether it is actually a sequel or prequel – despite being set 20 years on. Harper Lee chose at the time not to publish it, believing it to be inadequate, but after reading it, I would definitely disagree. In several ways, it’s very different from To Kill a Mockingbird, and some might argue that it is a disappointment owing to this, but again I would disagree. It is a beautifully written and well-balanced book, and in a way, more complex than its predecessor. The book creates a balance between the serious messages that are coming across and a light-hearted humour as it reflects on memories from Scout’s past. This keeps the reader engaged, giving the reader a break from the complexity of the novel, while also portraying that this is the very nature of humanity – a break is always needed.

Many people may be disappointed with Go Set a Watchman as a result of the newly changed Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch, who over the years has ascended to an almost God-like status – indeed Uncle Jack tells Jean-Louise that she “confused her father with God” – is a changed man in Go Set a Watchman. The reader here must reconcile themselves to a new Atticus, one who allegedly spouts “abhorrent views on race and segregation,” and has rejected the NAACP. While this has caused many to reject Harper Lee’s new novel, wishing to continue idolising the Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, in my opinion this is foolish. Despite changing the reader’s opinion on one of the most beloved characters in literary history, Go Set a Watchman adds a new complexity to the character by exploring his flaws, and while it may not be as satisfactory to read, it adds a new layer to the issue of civil rights at the time. As well as that, it explores the perspective of Atticus, who in his opinion is just attempting to do the right thing – even Scout eventually reconciles herself to his choices and Uncle Jack states that “the law is what he [Atticus] lives by,” and he’ll always attempt to do the right thing by it. Therefore, despite the surface views of Atticus in the novel, Harper Lee succeeds in making it much more complex than what one initially feels at the new attitudes expressed.

As well as exploring the theme of civil rights, Harper Lee also captures the confusion of growing up beautifully, as Scout battles with unwanted change and an indecision over what to do in Go Set a Watchman, and the position of a woman in society – a position that Scout ultimately rejects, as she did as a child. Additionally, the book portrays the importance of realising that your childhood heroes are ultimately human, and therefore flawed, and it is not only Jean-Louise who realises this – it is all the readers who held Atticus in such high esteem upon first reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Through this, it leaves even more for the reader to think on after finishing this profound book.

The plot of the book is also beautifully written, with exactly the right blend of humour, romance, confusion and apparent tragedy. The fact that one of the main characters from the original classic didn’t survive the 20 year gap comes as a unhappy shock to readers, but adds a new depth to the story as it illustrates just how much Scout has had to mature between the two novels – although like the change in Atticus, readers may be outraged by this sudden revelation. The pace of the book is well-managed, proceeding in such a way as to keep the reader constantly engaged, yet adding enough detail to leave them wanting to reread every word to fully comprehend what is going on. Despite only stretching over a couple of days, the book feels like Scout has progressed years from start to finish, showing the impact one event can have on a person.

Go Set a Watchman is, in my opinion, the perfect companion for To Kill a Mockingbird. It not only stands alone in its brilliance, but adds complexity and depth to the original and is ultimately profound enough to leave the reader thinking about it for days. It will be interesting to see whether it’s introduced into the school curriculum at any point, as almost everyone will have studied To Kill a Mockingbird at some point, and the links and differences between the two would make for an interesting discussion. While I could write a huge amount more about this commendable book, I will end with this: the only thing that leaves me feeling disappointed about Go Set a Watchman is that Harper Lee hasn’t written anything else.

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