Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Twenty years later…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…

I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!

There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.

The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.

Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.

On set with “Atticus” – Harper Lee and Gregory Peck

The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.

But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.

As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!

But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.

Harper Lee

I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…

Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 198…

Episode 198

Yet again, the TBR has dropped – down 1 to 221! I wish this was because I was racing through the books, but in reality it’s because I’ve been abandoning books right, left and centre. It’s a brutal way to get it down, but effective…

Here are a few more that will be rolling off the pile soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. The story of a real female amateur detective operating in the time of Golden Age mystery fiction is irresistible…

The Blurb says: Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than thirty years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the Golden Age of Crime?

Interweaving tales from Maud West’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and Continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one but have heard good things about the author, and the blurb makes it sound wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. Plus it’s set in Istanbul, so hopefully will make for an interesting detour on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: “In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…”

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . . 

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Thriller

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. RJ Ellory is one of those authors who is great when he’s on form, but sometimes he’s not. Hopefully this “what if?” thriller will be one of the great ones…

The Blurb says: IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
On 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade rode through Dealey Plaza. He and his wife Jackie greeted the crowds on a glorious Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.

BUT WHAT IF IT MISSED?
Mitch Newman is a photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. His phone never rings. When it does, a voice he hasn’t heard in years will tell him his former fiancée Jean has taken her own life.

WHEN THE TRUTH IS BIGGER THAN ALL THE LIES
Jean was an investigative reporter working the case of a lifetime. Somewhere in the shreds of her investigation is the truth behind her murder.

WHO WOULD BELIEVE IT?

For Mitch, piecing together the clues will become a dangerous obsession: one that will lead him to the dark heart of his country – and into the crossfire of a conspiracy…

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Fiction on Audio

I tried to listen to this when it came out and abandoned it, partly because Reese Witherspoon’s accent is so Southern I was struggling to catch some of the words, but mainly because I was uneasy about the publication of the book – I still feel Harper Lee was taken advantage of at the end of her life. However, having recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and just finished the fascinating Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), about the true crime novel Lee tried and failed to write, I find I’m ready to approach this one now, more as an interesting insight on Lee herself, perhaps, than with a real anticipation of it being a great novel. If Reese is too much for me, I have a paper copy to fall back on…

The Blurb says: 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 discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?