Go Set a Watchman

I know, I know, late to the party. There have probably been hundreds of articles written about Harper Lee’s 2015-released novel.  I haven’t read them. Also, this won’t be an article or a review. In the same saw that I don’t write gig reviews, I write about my experiences of the events. I recently read Watchman and the whole affair made me think a lot, so I am going to try to coalesce these thoughts here.  I don’t think I’ve written a blog piece about a book before but I seem to be on a roll with blogging just now and it will make a change from writing about indie rock bands. Although if you are interested I am writing this listening to new Paws and Twin Atlantic and feeling very excited for the state of Scottish rock right now.  But I digress..

When I first heard the news that there was to be a new novel from the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, I was at first amazed, and then intrigued.  Harper Lee famously only wrote that one novel so there was bound to be a story behind this latest release.  There were news reports of people flocking to pre-order it.  Much as I was keen to find out more, I wasn’t so eager as to queue up in Waterstone’s. I read a little about the background to the new work. It was variously described as a sequel and a prequel. Hmmm. Then I read about how Lee was in failing health and the book was based on original draft manuscripts that someone had decided to release after all these years. Hmmmm. It sounded decidedly dodgy. But then I am a natural cynic. Was it dodgy or was it all part of the publicity? Was Lee re-evaluating her life’s work while she still had the chance? Or was she being manipulated for financial gain? I wasn’t sure. I let it sit for a while. Then curiosity got the better of me and I bought the book. But I still couldn’t quite bring myself to read it.

To Kill A Mockingbird is obviously a classic and regularly features in lists of favourite or influential books.  I read it at school. I can’t actually remember if it was on our curriculum or if I read it myself during a phase of reading similar genre books.  I remember racing through a trilogy on a similar theme, and read countless others dealing with the same themes or historical period of Mockingbird.  Those books were instrumental in me embarking on the path I have taken in life.  As a teenager, they taught me that inequality and injustice have been present throughout history, and still prevail in many places today.  They taught me that in order for us all to be truly free, all of our neighbours must be free.  They taught me about the notion of intersectionality many years before I knew the term or understood what it meant.  I went on to study Politics, then a did a Masters in Human Rights and have since worked in supported employment for people with learning disabilities, advocacy for young people with disabilities and/or mental health difficulties and now in a university disability service, ensuring equality of access to education for all. I can trace the foundations for my belief in this kind of work to novels like To Kill A Mockingbird.

I decided to re-read Mockingbird first.  After that I still couldn’t decide about Watchman. I didn’t want it to spoil Mockingbird for me. I got distracted reading a trilogy of Scottish books that my mum lent me, then decided to go for it.

Well, what did I think? Actually, I’m not entirely sure. I finished it last night. If it were a stand-alone novel, it wouldn’t be much good. However, I can’t imagine anyone reading it in isolation. So it only makes sense to judge it alongside Mockingbird. I know common consensus now is that it was a first draft of Mockingbird, but as it is set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, it is natural to approach it as a sequel. Of sorts. It isn’t really a coherent novel. Well I thought it started off that way, but then literally lost the plot later on.

I liked the characterisation of Scout, now referred to primarily as Jean Louise. One of the reasons I love Mockingbird is how much I relate to Scout. I thought that when I read it as a teenager, and now I can also relate very much to an adult Jean Louise.  Scout / Jean Louise is the kind of female character I wish I saw more often. It’s all very well having “stong female” types but they tend to become one-dimensional in the writer’s attempts to continually prove their “strong” credentials. They lack personality, flaws and normality. Scout is a tom-boy who likes adventures, Jean Louise will stand up for herself in a world that values demure women, but we also see her vulnerable, occasionally feminine and self-doubting side too. The description of her train ride home is well written, you get the sense of who she is as a person, and it very much correlates with the Scout of 20 years previously.  My only gripe is that we never find out what Scout (I’m sorry, I can’t call her Jean Louise, she will always be Scout) is doing in New York. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think it ever says what she studied or what she is doing for a living there.  These are quite significant elements of a person’s life, especially when she has her internal debate about whether she can make a life for herself in Maycomb.  At one point she is told her talents would be required, but I’m none the wiser as to what these are, at least in a professional sense.

Unfortunately the novel looses its way somewhat in the middle.  It becomes disjointed, with large swathes of dialogue tenuously linked together.  The dialogue is lengthy, referencing Supreme Court decisions and local government functions that I had to go and google to make sense of. The dialogue often errs towards preaching, with extended passages espousing a character’s point of view on various topics, which become too long-winded and would have benefited from some serious editing.

Saying that, the language and characterisation is remarkably modern, considering it was written at the same time as, or prior to, Mockingbird. This is partly due to the point of view focussing on an adult Jean Louise, rather than 6 year old Scout, so there is less of the child-like vernacular. But even when the flow is messy, the brilliant writing of Harper Lee still shines through.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the ending. I’m not too bothered about spoilers, seeing as it has been out for a year now and a synopsis can be easily found on Wikipedia. It all centres round Scout coming to a realisation about her worldview, in relation to her father’s. I didn’t buy it. She’s 26 years old, has been living away from home through college and then work for, what 8 years? If she was 16 at the time it may have made more sense, but everything we have learned about Scout tells us that she would have soaked up everything that college and New York had to offer, and would have conversed and debated and argued with a multitude of people from all walks of life along the way.  I just didn’t believe that she made it that far in life without that “shocking” revelation dawning on her.

So on the whole I’m glad I read it. There are some great passages and it was somehow nice to find out how Scout turned out. Part of me wants another sequel set in another 20 years, to see where she goes next. It reaffirmed my love for Mockingbird and the character of Scout. There were also some good sections in the too-lengthy dialogue exchanges about civil rights and freedoms which are worth reading and reminding ourselves about, particularly relevant for current discourse on immigration and religious tolerance in America (and elsewhere) today. It didn’t spoil Mockingbird for me, I view Watchman as kind of a set of extra notes on Mockingbird, which enhance my understanding of it and accompany it nicely.  I will definitely return to re-read Mockingbird again at some point, I can’t see myself re-reading Watchman, but I’m glad I gave it a shot.

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