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Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee Review

go-set-a-watchman-harper-leeReleased: July 2015

After years of being locked in a safe, the hotly anticipated sequel to Harper Lee’s beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird is finally upon us. The novel has been causing quite a stir recently, as many are unsure whether Lee wanted her old manuscript published or if people have been taking advantage of her old age and ill health. The first chapter of Go Set A Watchman was released online ahead of its publication, bringing with it the shocking news that Atticus Finch, an iconic literary hero, is a racist. Taking place 20 years on from the events of Mockingbird, the story follows Jean Louise (formerly Scout), the Finch family and the town of Maycomb.

As expected, there have been numerous developments in Maycomb since Scout Finch’s childhood. The technology has advanced slightly, the civil rights movement is gaining momentum and racial tensions are increasing. Mockingbird’s bad-tempered heroine Scout is now 26-year-old Jean Louise, returning home to visit her ageing father Atticus and her Aunt Alexandra. The Finches live in a different house, Jem is absent, Calpurnia no longer works for them and Dill is in Italy. Jean Louise even has a boyfriend, her old friend and neighbour Henry Clinton.

One of the most distinctive features of Watchman is the third-person narrator which has replaced the infamous first-person narrative delivered by young, innocent Scout in Mockingbird. This takes away some of the magic, but Maycomb’s appearance, the social codes that are entrenched in its history, and the habits of its residents are nonetheless captured with charming detail.

Lee demonstrates her accomplished storytelling by providing several sentimental flashbacks to Jean Louise’s adolescence, reminding us why these characters are so widely adored. Jean Louise’s visit brings back fond memories of hot summers playing in the yard with Jem and Dill, inventing wild stories and getting up to mischief. She recollects being caught playing naked outside by a Reverend, the horror of her first period, believing she was pregnant after kissing a boy, and stuffing her dress with fake breasts for her school dance. These moments enable readers to reconnect with popular characters, but also serve as a bitter-sweet reminder that everyone has to grow up and leave certain things behind.

It has to be said that Watchman doesn’t have a strong plot; the focal point of the book is Jean Louise becoming disillusioned when she discovers Atticus’ racist views. On the same courtroom balcony where she witnessed Atticus defending Tom Robinson (a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman), she sees him attending a pro-segregation meeting. Atticus defends his opinions, leaving Jean Louise and countless fans feeling betrayed and stung. The wider context of the novel is the political turmoil in 1950s America, but Jean Louise’s coming-of-age is at the heart of it. She is undoubtedly more open-minded and progressive than her family, but she has a lot of maturing to do. Standing up to Atticus is a defining moment for Jean Louise; asserting her own thoughts is a sign that she has finally become her own woman.

Mockingbird is a timeless classic because it can be discussed and analysed again and again, and the issues it explores are unfortunately still relevant. Watchman offers a deeper insight into these themes by abandoning the childlike observations and focusing on adult perspectives. The quality of the writing may not compete with Mockingbird, but Lee nevertheless raises more complex questions about society and prejudice and has certainly given readers plenty to think about (I can almost hear future GCSE students groaning in despair).

★★★★

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