Go Set a Watchman
The train on which Jean Louise travels home. She might as well be travelling backwards in time. Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee (Publisher: Harper; 1st Edition, July 14 2015)

This novel cannot be discussed without reference to Lee’s first and famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. However, as Go Set a Watchman is set after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, comparisons are both inevitable and useful. Go Set a Watchman is adroitly written, with hardly a word out of place and nothing extraneous or repetitive. Reading it as a novel of and about the 1950s it is still interesting and (quite surprisingly) engaging. It might be a sequel, or even a type of prequel, but it can stand alone as a very good work of fiction. (To read the review only, click here.) If you want the context, read on… 

Firstly, I, personally, have no particular liking for To Kill a Mockingbird. I believe the popularity of the novel is a particularly American phenomenon, perhaps enhanced by Harper Lee’s status as a mysterious recluse, and the massive impact of the 1962 film adaption and Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettably sad and captivating soundtrack of it. While it is certainly an outstanding novel, I think there are other, better novels on the same subjects and in the same genres – coming-of-age novels, for instance, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003), Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (2013). And in the Southern Gothic genre, there are Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers, and an almost, oft-read favourite of mine, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (1994). But these are my personal preferences.


First edition dust jacket

I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in school in South Africa (yes, its fame even spread that far) – a strange choice in a country where Apartheid was still in effect. Perhaps the censors didn’t know of the book’s message about the stand against segregation, or racial heroism. As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. The book is widely taught in schools in the United States with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice.

And since 1960, when it came out, the literary world, America in particular, has waited for another novel from Harper Lee – with, of course, the risk to her reputation that the second book won’t be as good as the first.

Starting in 1964, Lee began to turn down interviews, and has declined ever since to talk with reporters about the book. She broke her silence when she announced on her 88th birthday (she was born April 28, 1926), that the novel will finally be released as ebook and downloadable audiobook. On 8 July 2014, the book was available, published by Cornerstone in the UK. In a rare public statement released through her publisher, HarperCollins, Lee said:

“I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

I read Go Set a Watchman in e-book format, which is a first for me. Like Lee, I like books printed on paper – they feel nice and are more robust than ipads. And they don’t run out of battery power.

Following the release of the ebook, Go Set a Watchman was published on July 14, 2015. Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was (re?)discovered in late 2014. That’s according to her publishers – I don’t think “rediscovered” is quite the right word. It has been there all along. Why publish it now?

Controversy – as expected

Note of copy Go set a Watchman
A notecard for “Go Set a Watchman,” from the records of literary agent Annie Laurie Williams. (Annie Laurie Williams records, 1922-1971, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York)

Some critics have called the timing of the book “suspicious”, citing Lee’s declining health, statements she had made over several decades that she would not write or release another novel, and the death of her sister (and caregiver) just two months before the announcement.‪ NPR reported on the news of her new book release, with circumstances “raising questions about whether she is being taken advantage of in her old age.” Writing for the New York Times, Joe Nocera commented, same as I had thought, that that Lee’s family and her publishers knew full well that it was the same manuscript submitted to Tay Hohoff in the 50s that was [later] reworked into [To Kill aMockingbird, and that the publishers knew of the manuscript for decades, and it is not a discovery at all.‪ “Issue No. 2 is the question of whether “Go Set a Watchman” is, in fact, a “newly discovered” novel, worthy of the hoopla it has received, or whether it something less than that: a historical artifact or, more bluntly, a not-very-good first draft that eventually became, with a lot of hard work and smart editing, an American classic.”

Controvery aside, this was quite a literary event. By July 2015 Go Set a Watchman had 19742 ratings and 5665 reviews on Goodreads alone. While sales for the book dropped sharply in its second week of publication, it remained the best-selling book in the US for the week ending July 26, according to Nielsen BookScan, with more than 1.1 million copies in all the different formats already sold in North America.

Why review it?

To Kill a Mockingbird is a phenomenon, it has been filmed, reprinted, analyzed, studied, prescribed, illustrated, set to music, challenged, banned, endlessly quoted from, even tattooed. If praise for Lee’s next novel was therefore almost inevitable, why bother reviewing it? I wondered if I might, as an “outsider reader”, find this vintage novel with retro appeal, worthwhile reading. Besides, it shows respect to an author to take their work seriously and give it a deep reading, rather than just passing it off as “obviously great” effort, as if the author is already dead and resting on their laurels, so to speak.

(Continue to the review of Go Set A Watchmanclick here.)

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