I tried not to go into too much detail, but if you really don’t want to know anything about the plot of the novel, don’t read this.
My initial reaction to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is:
I cannot hate it.
The negative hype leading up to the release of this “sequel/prequel” of To Kill a Mockingbird had me almost not reading this book. However, because of my love for Scout and Atticus, I felt compelled to find out what happens to them.
Yes, the novel has technical problems. It IS clearly a work that needed more polishing before it was published. There are long, monotonous sequences of Scout recalling her childhood that needed to be heavily redacted or excised altogether. So tedious were these sequences that I found myself asking “…and the point of her telling me all this is….?” In addition, about a third of the way into the novel the suggestion that there would be another emotionally charged trial was introduced. However, this plot line was not developed. It made me wonder if the author had changed her mind about including this plot line but forgot to remove the mention of it. Overall, the novel does not have the same clean, Spartan directional clarity of To Kill a Mockingbird. This novel’s flow is muddy and complicated.
That being said, there is much to laud about this novel. The strength of this novel is in the author’s sensitive and skillful handling of Scout’s emotional and psychic meltdown when she learns that Atticus is not man she thought she knew. I found myself tearing up as she struggles not to hate her beloved father. Scout’s Uncle Jack, a new character not seen in To Kill a Mockingbird, tries to make her understand her father and the people who think like him. He fails for the most part, but the reader sees Scout slowly and painfully shedding off the skin of her childhood perceptions. Uncle Jack explains to her something the reader already knows but, like Scout, doesn’t want to acknowledge: the world and the people in it are extraordinarily complicated. The author’s rendering of this fact of life through Scout’s turmoil is both painful and inspiring to see. For me, the key to understanding and embracing this novel is to remember that To Kill a Mockingbird was told the point of view of a child who practically deified her father. The author tells us, through Uncle Jack, not to make Atticus a hero or a god. He is just a man, flawed and imperfect, as we all are.
The title of the novel comes from the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Isaiah 21:6 Uncle Jack implores Scout not to leave Maycomb, but to live there and become a “watchman,” a much-needed moral compass for the town. Her people need her.
Many reviewers have stated how much they hate what the author has done to the character of Atticus. I would say that those readers need to become like Scout: to put away their childhood perceptions and see the world as a complicated and flawed place. Only then can changes begin to be made. Many readers like myself find that reading To Kill a Mockingbird to be a satisfying experience, but reading Go Set a Watchman an unsettling one.
But then, that’s the point of the novel, I think.
ljg (c) 2015
Required legal doo-doo: This review is based on a copy of the book that I bought with my own money. It was NOT a freebie from the publisher.