Book Reviews

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

Since its release Go Set a Watchman has faced a slew of disappointment and criticism, so when reading it for myself I tried to set all judgement aside and go into it with an open mind.

book cover of Go Set a WatchMan by Harper Lee

What Go Set A Watchman is about:

The orignal draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is set years after the first book. It’s what Haper Lee presented to the publishers, and they had her re-write the whole thing, and To Kill a Mockingbird was born.

A now twenty-six Jean Lousie Finch, who we all know and love as Scout, comes home from New York to visit her faher. Set during civil rights tensions and political upheaval in the south, her home coming comes with revelations about her home and family. Jean Louise’s entire persepctive and world-view is put to the test.

There isn’t so much of a plot or story with this as there was in the first book, it’s really just a journey of self-discovery for Scout which is triggered by life back in Maycomb.

What I thought:

I found myself agreeing with much of the criticism. I’m not going to be overly harsh on Harper Lee though because I think Watchman needs to be taken with a pinch of salt – it was initially rejected for publication after all. There’s also the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird was a masterpiece, and I personally don’t think novels like that can be written twice so the sequel (although it was wrote first) could never measure up.

Given the fact that there are conflicting stories as to how Watchman’s manuscript was discovered over 50 years later and speculation as to whether or not Lee was in a position to consent to the publication makes me doubt whether or not this was a novel intended to enter the public domain.

Having just finished the novel it certainly lacked the impact and catharsis To Kill a Mockingbird had. If one read it and completely blocked out its predecessor, I think they’d find that it was a perfectly good novel – not amazing or particularly special but I would be hesitant to say that it’s a bad read. It is, however, vastly disappointing.

Set years later in Scout’s (Jean Lousie) adulthood, I found myself disconnected from the characters and Maycomb itself. The novel details her trip home from New York and Maycomb and it residents felt just as strange to me as they did to a disillusioned Jean Lousie. The notorious Boo Radley wasn’t acknowledged, Jem had literally dropped dead with little explanation or sentiment attached aside from perhaps one insinuation and a couple of flashbacks.

I’m still in the habit of calling her Scout, while I understand that Jean Louise had grown up, and elements of the old Scout remained, I didn’t find her as compelling. ¬†And Atticus, dear sweet Jesus, what in the world happened to Atticus Finch!? I adored Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird; he was wise, warm, gentle. In Go Set a Watchman, quite a lot of his behaviour was explained but he certainly wasn’t the same character from To Kill a Mockingbird. He came off a narrow-minded, cowardly, and bigoted. Like Scout, this was a novel that reinforces the sad life lesson that we all learn at some point or another: often those you respect or look up to prove themselves to be inherently flawed and not as heroic or admirable as they once seemed to be. Maybe that’s all a part of growing up, but that enlightenment is one that hits home. To be brutally honest, I was actually saddened reading this mainly because of that.

It also doesn’t make sense for Atticus to be like this, given that this is set after the events of to Kill a Mockingbird. What happened in the years after that make him go backwards? I wouldn’t even say Jem’s death is what did it to him, because Jem is very much not in people’s minds much here.

The plot wasn’t very strong but I have read books that have bored me to the point of giving up on them and this did not drive me to that. It was readable but not overly stimulating – if there was a climax I hardly noticed it. A huge difference was that although racism was a huge theme, it thrived in this novel instead of being fought against. I think Lee had a beautiful writing style but I found her jumps from third to first person irritating. A lot happened that just simply wasn’t explained to readers. I do take into account that Lee was a young and inexperienced writer when Go Set a Watchman was written so the art was yet to be perfected for her.

What I enjoyed the most in the novel was the flashbacks to Scout’s youth where respites from Jean Louise’s present would be taken with flashbacks to summer games of her, Jem, and Dill, and the anecdotes of her naive school days.

Ultimately, I found Go Set a Watchman a mediocre read at best. I do feel bad for being a little harsh, especially considering that Lee only recently passed away, but I can’t sit here and say every book I read is the greatest thing ever, now can I?

If you repress everything you know about to Kill a Mockingbird before reading this, you migh enjoy it a little more. However, either way, it’s still clear as day why it wasn’t originally published in this form. It feels like a draft and not a finished novel.

The Bottom Line

There’s so many contributing factors as to why this doesn’t deserve to be considered a bad book, afterall, it’s potential is what led to To Kill a Mockingbird getting publised in the first place!

I’d recommend reading this, but take it with more than a pinch of salt. If you liked to Kill a Mocking Bird and other classics, you might like a Clockwork Orange and the Handmaid’s Tale.

Have you read Go set a Watchman? What did you think?

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