* A review of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, as imagined in a world where To Kill A Mockingbird never existed; and therefore GSaW did not become an instant bestseller based purely upon its history. Disclaimer: there may be some spoilers if you have not read any of the recent hubbub about GSaW. Also, if you mistake my creative license as reality then I’m not even going to respond.
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I would wager it is not often that an octogenarian is a debut author. However, just that happened to some acclaim as Go Set A Watchman published recently, authored by Harper Lee, who resides in an assisted-living community in Alabama. Publicists promised a “well-told story of the Civil Rights era” which would be “relevant to the racial tensions in a post-Ferguson America.”
It is said that Lee (who remains curiously absent from the public eye) first wrote the manuscript many decades ago – and it shows. True to her era, the language is laborious and often politically incorrect (if I have to read about a “Negro’s kinky-haired head” one more time I may vomit). The editing is half-shod and allows for long and painful descriptions where a sentence or two may have sufficed. Example: there is no need to explain how Jean Louise unbuttons her shirt, THEN unzips her slacks, THEN kicks off her shoes and one sock, AND ONLY THEN collapses onto her bed. Jean Louise half-heartedly undresses and collapses on bed. Is that not imagery enough?
Nonetheless there are some lyrical passages and Lee is certainly not without talent. I must hand it to her that she conjures up a gorgeous picture of a part of the world I have never visited. The negative publicity in spite, I do so long for those Southern summers, now.
The first one hundred or so pages had me asking, “WHY AM I READING THIS PATRIARCHAL AND RACIST BULLSHIT?!” because everyone – yes, even Jean Louise – was subtly racist. It was painful and I carried on reading simply because I figured there would be a turn somewhere (alright, other reviewers told me there would be).
The change comes eventually, when JL (she has a long name) discovers that her father and future-fiancé (they’re engaged to be engaged?) are involved in some dubious racist “City Council” meetings. Here it becomes clear that JL was NOT raised to be racist, but was in fact raised by the maxim of “Equality for all, special privileges for none”. She describes how a black woman was the closest she ever had to a mother, and how her lawyer-father defended an innocent black man when nobody else would.
So, it finally got a little bit exciting, with JL having to confront the realities of the people she loves and the town in which she grew up. She may not always have LOVED the fictional Maycomb, but it was home.
The long diatribes henceforth were… well, a little too long and diatribe-y. It was as though one was reading the transcript of the GOP debate, perhaps. JL was more liberal than her father but still fairly racist and completely unaware of her inherent privilege. GSaW does not add any insights to the current tensions in the US. It is more historical than ground-breaking, really.
It is valid to consider that as a non-American, this may mean less to me. To me, it is a story with historical ties to the world. To US-readers, it is a story set in THEIR OWN HISTORY.
I could identify with JL, for sure. I know what it is to have differing ideologies to your dearest family. It is a daily battle to decide whether you will have a peaceful, quiet dinner; or whether certain points are important enough to turn the dinner-table into a raging House-of-Parliament. I know what it is to arrive home from a different city to find that everything is different to how you remember; only to realise that it is yourself that has changed, and not the place.
In that trend, I appreciated the insights about growing up and finding one’s OWN “watchman”, based not upon one’s heroes but upon one’s own foundations. Certainly an important conclusion to reach.
Ultimately, this was not a life-changing book for me – neither in content nor style. I appreciated reading about the struggle JL experiences when she discovers her father’s fallibility, if only because I can identify with it, and no other book (that I know of) has addressed it so well.
It is unlikely to be a best-seller, though. Some will cherish it for its portrayal of the good ol’ South, others will deride its implications. Me? I just wish I could read more about Jean Louise’s childhood, which were the only parts of the book within which I could truly lose myself.
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I did not want to add another discussion or review to the magnificent pile about GSaW, so instead I considered the book as if TKaM never existed. However, here is a list of some of my favourite posts about the book (in THIS universe). I don’t necessarily disagree or agree with these posts.
1. Go Set a Watchman – review/discussion by The Misanthropologist
2. Atticus and Me – Pastor Emily C. Heath
4. You can listen to BBC Radio’s recording of the book here read by Fenella Woolgar (available til +/- 10 September 2015).
5. Why I’ll Wait To Read “Go Set A Watchman” – Jessica Tripler
6. Why I Don’t Care That Atticus Started Off Racist – Morgan Jerkins
7. GSaW Preliminary Thoughts – Christine at Bookishly Boisterous