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Monday, 20 July 2015

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Title: Go Set A Watchman
Author: Harper Lee
Release Date: 14th July 2015
Rating: 4.5 Stars

I'll start by saying that it's very difficult to write an objective review of 'Go Set A Watchman' when you've loved 'To Kill A Mockingbird' for as many years as I have, but I'll try. I'll also do my best to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but will assume that anyone reading this will at least be familiar with 'To Kill A Mockingbird'.

I have to admit that I wasn't sold by the first chapter of this novel. If I hadn't already been familiar with the character of Jean Louise Finch I don't think the opening chapter of 'Go Set A Watchman' would have inspired me to want to know more. The first thing that hits you is the fact it's written in the third person, which already sets a very different tone to that of 'To Kill A Mockingbird'. You can tell that this is a raw and unedited draft of the book and it seems very long and meandering to begin with, and doesn't grab you like you'd hope it would.

However, when you get to Chapter 2 the story really does begin to take shape. It almost feels like coming home in a weird and wonderful way. The characters are as we know and remember them. Scout is still the Scout we're familiar with, although this more grown up version prefers to go by the name Jean Louise now. But she's still the feisty girl we remember from 'To Kill a Mockingbird' who will stand no nonsense from anyone. Atticus is there, and at this point in the story appears to be exactly the same as the Atticus we know and love, with all the qualities we would expect him to have, albeit older and more frail than the man we remember. Aunt Alexandra has now moved in with him and has a somewhat volatile relationship with Jean Louise. There's also a hint of romance in the air, as a new (to us) character called Henry "Hank" Clinton makes no secret of the fact he would like Scout to marry him.

The flashbacks to Scout's childhood and adolescent years are a pure delight, and these alone make 'Go Set A Watchman' a must read in my eyes. Some of these made me laugh out loud, while others brought a lump to my throat. It is these scenes that make it clear that what we are reading is the birth of the 'To Kill A Mockingbird' we know and love.

It is at around the half way mark that there's a surprising turn of events that take the story in a direction that those of us who loved 'To Kill a Mockingbird' would never have expected, and the sense of despair and betrayal Jean Louise feels is palpable, as we, too, feel the exact same emotions right along with her. But it is also here that it becomes clear that this is Jean Louise's story, and that she is a strong, decent woman who is trying to make sense of the world around her. Just as the character of Atticus Finch is synonymous with 'To Kill a Mockingbird', Jean Louise Finch is the standout literary character of 'Go Set a Watchman' and I'm so glad her story is finally ready to be told.

Unlike some, I don't believe that the character of Atticus Finch has been ruined by this book. I feel that the Atticus of 'Go Set A Watchman' is very much a product of his time, and that everything we loved about him in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is still very much a part of who he is. Only here we see a more flawed, human Atticus who is far from infallible. And just like Jean Louise, we see that the idealistic way we once saw the people (or characters) we love is not necessarily how they really are. It is as devastating to us as it is to her, but it's a 'coming of age' story we all must go through at some point in our lives.

It's shocking to think that even now all these years later, there are still people who hold views like those contained within the pages of 'Go Set A Watchman'. It's unpalatable to the majority of us, but that's what makes this book an important one. It is as relevant today as it would have been at the time it was written, only now, finally, the time is right for the adult Jean Louise to be given her voice. And I'm so glad that she has, as she is someone who deserves to be heard. A strong female character in her  own right, who is finally being given the freedom to step out from behind the shadow of her father.

It isn't an easy read by any means, and all of the characters have views that are appalling to the majority of us living in the 21st century.  But I also believe that a book written more than 60 years ago with a strong female character such as Jean Louise Finch would have been seen as a very bold move indeed, especially at that particular time in American history. Which, in my opinion, is most likely the reason why it was originally turned down for publication and Harper Lee was asked to rewrite it as the novel that was eventually to become 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.

'Go Set A Watchman' is a book that has taken me on an emotional journey back through time to when I first read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as a child. It had such a profound effect on me back then that I was scared 'Go Set A Watchman' would tarnish that memory forever. But it hasn't. If anything it has enhanced how I feel about 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. It  not only works as a companion to the well loved classic, but is also an important piece of literature in its own right.

I sincerely hope that Harper Lee did give her informed consent for this book to be published, and that if she did, I'm so glad she decided to do so now. Jean Louise Finch has wings at last.

An impressive 4.5 stars.

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