Sunday, July 26, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - a great literary find

book review

Harper Lee's 'sequel' to her Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird isn't as good as her masterpiece but it still gives important insight into the author's writing process

Book: Go Set a Watchman
Author: Harper Lee

There is an age-old adage that advises artists to always leave their audience wanting more. This maxim was clearly taken to heart by author Harper Lee, who seemed to adhere to this philosophy for over five decades after first coming to the world’s attention by publishing an extraordinary debut novel and then resolutely refusing to publish another book again. But now that one of her early works has almost unexpectedly made its way to bookshelves, many of the same readers who spent half a century insisting they wanted more have decided that they would have been happier with less. Turns out, another adage also holds true: you simply cannot please everyone.

Lee’s first novel was, of course, the much celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a rare literary gem that has taught generations of teenagers to fall in love with the written word. It’s warm, often amusing take on dark, difficult subjects has made it affecting and timeless, and its treatise on the racial inequality of the Deep South in the 1930s, delivered beautifully by employing a child’s perspective to dissect society’s prejudices and shortcomings, continues to highlight the importance and power of empathy. Its so-called sequel, however, started courting controversy even before its publication.

Go Set a Watchman was written in the 1950s and submitted to the publisher who told the author to instead refocus the narrative on the protagonist’s childhood and thereby work on what would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird. The manuscript was thought to be lost for many years until it was supposedly rediscovered in 2011. But the circumstances in which the book subsequently resurfaced last year and the timing of its publication immediately came under scrutiny, with the writer’s old age and declining health leading to suspicions of elder abuse. Then its content started to cause a furore, and before you knew it, commentators had reduced it to a novel that — spoiler alerts be damned — turned everyone’s favourite fictional legal crusader into a racist. While that may be a valid observation, focus on that singular aspect is detracting attention from the fact that the book actually has significantly more inherent value for literature enthusiasts.

Set two decades after Mockingbird, Watchman reunites us with a number of familiar characters. Young Scout, the former “juvenile desperado, hellraiser extraordinary”, is now the grown up Jean Louise Finch, a 26-year-old woman who calls New York her new home. But when she makes her “fifth annual trip” back to Maycomb on a two-week vacation, she is confronted with a reality that leaves her dumbfounded. To her shock, she finds her now-72-year-old arthritic father, Atticus Finch, as well as her beau, Henry Clinton, attending a meeting of the town’s citizen council, a gathering of white supremacists who support the preservation of segregation. Her world is shattered as her idol — the man who valiantly defended a black man charged with the rape of a white girl — is reduced to a flawed human.

It’s a novel about disillusionment, about seeing people for who they are instead of worshipping idealised heroes, and Jean Louise isn’t the only one who has to suffer the dismay of losing an idol; her sentiments will be shared by many bookworms who peruse the novel. Readers who hold him dear are likely to be upset about any development that would besmirch Atticus’s name. But even though Watchman has added an appallingly unflattering dimension to the character of Lee’s famed hero, the more complex Atticus is no less interesting, and is perhaps even more realistic, than the saintly, gallant warrior we met in Mockingbird.

The novel isn’t searching for the best in people; nor does it concern itself with crafting pleasant ever-afters. Be it the betrayal Jean Louise feels, or how things turn out for beloved characters like Jem, Calpurnia, and Dill (all three of whom deserve more attention than they get in this volume), there doesn’t seem to be much happiness in the Watchman universe. The book is nonetheless peppered with some delightful flashbacks which are a joy to read. There are occasional flashes of the humour and warmth that made Lee’s first novel so charming, but the prose isn’t as crisp and refined as it was in her previous effort, nor should anyone expect it to be. Is it really a surprise that a rejected, unrevised draft isn’t as good as a Pulitzer Prizewinning masterpiece?

Watchman chooses to tell us things that a better novel would have shown us, and its tendency to overindulge in exposition — detailing Maycomb’s history, appearance, demographics, and politics, and ultimately even turning into a tedious sociopolitical lecture that the protagonist herself refers to as an “elaborate runaround” — weighs down its narrative and makes it less compelling than it should have been. We also lose the intimacy of Scout’s voice because of the overall third-person narrative. Plus there are a few inconsistencies that are at odds with the former book — most prominently the outcome of the Mockingbird trial, which is presented here as an acquittal instead of the original guilty verdict — and the effect of this can be a tad distracting.

Yet despite all its flaws, the novel still remains intriguing. More blunt and more difficult to read than the book that made Lee famous, Watchman exposes the bitter reality of the time in which it was written. If the mere idea that a much loved character has been turned into a racist makes you cringe, then you might want to give this book a miss. And if you want a strong story, driven by a riveting narrative and delivered through polished prose, then you’d be wise to look elsewhere, because ultimately, if you want the next great American novel, then this isn’t it. Watchman is an interesting companion to an iconic book, and the origin story of a classic. Expecting it to function as a fully polished novel is counterintuitive, but appreciate its importance as a literary find and you won’t be disappointed.

Would it have been better for Lee’s legacy if the book had never resurfaced? Perhaps, but it shouldn’t tarnish her image or diminish the power of her previous tome either. She may not have written the best novel on her first try, but you can still see what the ambitious writer was trying to accomplish. Without this volume we wouldn’t have been able to discover how the idea behind Mockingbird took shape and evolved into one of the most prominent books of the last century; and as a bibliophile, it is hard not to appreciate the fact that we’ve been given this chance.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 26th July, 2015 *

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