What I would have said to Harper Lee

Before I got a chance to read GO SET A WATCHMAN on Tuesday, I put myself on a media ban.  There were articles and reviews popping up all over the place and I wanted to come to the book with as few preconceptions as possible.  If you’ve not read it yet, you may want to stop now.  Come back when you’re ready.

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Everyone was rushing to talk about it.  There were also a lot of people queuing up to declare that they would never read it.  Was Harper Lee capable of having given her consent to publication?  Is GO SET A WATCHMAN a book in its own right or just an early draft of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?    Would reading it somehow ruin TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?

I re-read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD a few weeks ago and realised I’d forgotten that the book was narrated by a child.  I also felt that Atticus’s defence was less about civil rights and more about preventing injustice, regardless of who was on trial.

GO SET A WATCHMAN was the first book Harper Lee sent in to Tay Hohoff – who became her editor – but it was never taken any further.  I decided to read it as if it had been sent in to me by a new author.   It’s an interesting book, but it is flawed and uneven, and very much the work of an author who is setting out.

Scout (Jean Louise) comes back from New York to see her frail father.  She’s feeling guilty that she’s not around to look after him, although she knows that she is fundamentally out of step with the town she grew up in.  She’s wavering about marrying her longtime friend Hank.  Something happens that throws her adoration for her father into doubt (along with her respect for Hank.)  She has to decide how to react.

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So what’s working well?  The town of Maycomb is a character in its own right, and is expertly captured just as it begins to reinvent itself – struggling with history and the realities of the present.  The central dilemma must have been played out in small towns all over the South at that time, and GO SET A WATCHMAN exposes the real human relationships behind arguments of principle in a way that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD didn’t have to.

The sections where Lee wrote about Scout’s childhood are vivid and alive, and much more compelling than the adult Jean Louise’s musings.

Ultimately though, the book lacks a central event.  It skirts around possible points of conflict and decides to settle on Jean Louise’s disillusionment with her father.  Jean Louise’s discussions with Uncle Frank are the crux of what the author is trying to get across, but this turns it into an earnest philosophical plea, not a work of fiction.

The compelling element of the civil rights struggle in the South is the very real violence beneath the surface of shared history and genteel customs, and this book only hints at that violence.

If GO SET A WATCHMAN arrived on a slush pile I was reading, I would be delighted.  Harper Lee’s unique voice and talent shine through every page and the flaws would not be enough to reject her.  TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a much better book, picking up on Lee’s strengths, and focusing on a single act and its consequences, rather than an abstract idea.

Reading the two books shows a compromised adult view of racism and segregation, balanced by a child’s intransigent view and simple questions.  It also shows the journey authors go on, from their raw but beautiful beginnings  to their polished and lasting jewels.

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July 16, 2015

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