Monday, July 20, 2015

book review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

The backstory: When the publication of Go Set a Watchman was announced, I finally read To Kill a Mockingbird, which I didn't love, but I still hoped to enjoy Go Set a Watchman more, and I did.

The basics: Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb from New York City for her annual two-week visit.

My thoughts: Going into Go Set a Watchman, I admit I was reading it in multiple ways. I was reading it as though it were a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, which it sort of is. I was also reading it as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which it also sort of it. But both of these readings exist with To Kill a Mockingbird as a known book. Much as I tried to identify what it would be like to read this novel without having read that book, I couldn't. While I both enjoyed Go Set a Watchman more and think it's a better book, I'm not sure it would stand on its own as well as it stands next to To Kill a Mockingbird.

My issues with To Kill a Mockingbird were pretty straight-forward: Scout idolized Atticus (as all 6-year-olds do, but it was still an annoyance) and everything was just too black and white/good and bad. It lacked the moral complexities and ambiguities I crave. As much as I hate to use my former favorite metaphor now that it's been literarily high-jacked, I prefer my fiction to exist in many shades of grey. So an adult Scout immediately appealed to me. She's feisty and confident. She is firm in her beliefs. She's fascinating: "It’s just that I’m so afraid of making a mess of being married to the wrong man—the wrong kind for me, I mean. I’m no different from any other woman, and the wrong man would turn me into a screamin’ shrew in record time.”

But I didn't just like Jean Louise better than I liked Scout, I felt as though Jean Louise was reaching out as a lifeline from another time. And she is. I don't read many classics. I read a fair amount of historical fiction, but I realized while reading this novel how rare it is for me to read a book written in a time before mine. I don't know why this idea was so powerful to me, but it makes me want to push myself to read more books that were contemporary fiction when they were published.

Go Set a Watchman isn't perfect. I found the three flashback scenes to Scout's youth to be particularly dull (and oddly integrated), and the middle part dragged a bit for me. But once Jean Louise really starts to grapple with the complexities of race in the south through conversations, Watchman really hits its stride:
"The remnants of that little army had children—God, how they multiplied—the South went through the Reconstruction with only one permanent political change: there was no more slavery. The people became no less than what they were to begin with—in some cases they became horrifyingly more. They were never destroyed. They were ground into the dirt and up they popped. Up popped Tobacco Road, and up popped the ugliest, most shameful aspect of it all—the breed of white man who lived in open economic competition with freed Negroes."
To scholars of history, it isn't news. The recent book and documentary Slavery by Another Name sheds a lot of light on how we got from the Civil War to where we are today. To read Harper Lee so eloquently explain it through the dialogue of multiple characters was a tour de force. To hear it from characters readers already know (and mostly love), wowed me. The publication of this book has been both necessarily scrutinized and controversial, but after having finished it, I'm more surprised that people who have read it think it shouldn't have been published. This Atticus gets his oratorical moments, and they are just as good as the ones from To Kill a Mockingbird. The only difference I see is that he's having these conversations with a grown-up Jean Louise instead of a six-year-old Scout. These conversations are much more complicated, interesting and necessary than those childhood moral fables. Haven't we all had to deal with the emotional and intellectual fallout of realizing those we idolize as children are in fact human? To do so along with Jean Louise is quite the intellectual experience, and even as I think Go Set a Watchman is the better book, part of what makes it better is the shared experience of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Favorite passage:  "Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

The verdict: Go Set a Watchman is a more ambitious and more complicated novel than To Kill a Mockingbird. I also think it's a better novel, but it's not perfect. Still, I appreciate its moral complexities immensely. Jean Louise is refreshing, and the reader shares Jean Louise's shock at seeing a much-revered figure does not remain perfect under adult scrutiny. But this Atticus is still wise, and these conversations are necessary to understand the differences between realism and idealism.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: July 14, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Go Set a Watchman from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

P.S. I love my local library so much: not only did they open up the ebook and digital audiobook for holds weeks before publication, Go Set a Watchman seamlessly appeared on my Kindle before I woke up Tuesday.

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1 comment:

  1. Beautiful review. I've only read TKAM once, and felt a little as you did -- too many absolutes, not enough nuance. But I'm deeply curious about GSAW in the same way I was curious abt Woolf's Melymbrosia -- I want to see how a writer developed her craft.


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