“Go Set a Watchman” – an Everest-sized failure that sullies Harper Lee’s legacy.

go set a watchmanWhat was meant to be the literary triumph of the year has turned out to be its most shocking disappointment so far. 55 years after Harper Lee published the award-winning and beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, a sequel (as it has been touted) came out this week. Mockingbird has sold over 30 million copies since 1960, and many, like me, would have encountered it as a set work in high school or university English class. Lee only ever published this one novel, but it was enough to inscribe her in the literary annals of history.

Told through the eyes of eight-year old Scout Finch, Mockingbird was a masterpiece that examined race relations in the early 1930s in America’s Deep South. Scout’s father, Atticus, became a beacon, a hero, an icon that stood against racism, by defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

When an announcement was made earlier this year that an unpublished manuscript had been found, readers sat up. The manuscript, titled Go Set a Watchman, was written before Mockingbird but features the same characters, twenty years later. When Lee sent the manuscript to a publisher, she was told to develop more scenes featuring Scout’s recollection of her childhood. This became To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Go Set a Watchman, 26-year old Scout (who now goes by her real name, Jean Louise) returns from New York to her hometown in Maycomb, Alabama to visit the ageing Atticus. Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem, a key character in Mockingbird, is dead, killed by a heart attack at 22. She’s in a loose romantic relationship with her childhood friend and father’s law partner, Henry Clifton.

Jean Louise recalls the events of Mockingbird, but here the first evidence that this manuscript is not really a sequel, emerges. While plot lines in the two books overlap in part, there are key differences in Jean Louise’s recollections of what happened twenty years ago. In Mockingbird, Atticus defends an adult black man, Tom Robinson, who’s accused of raping an adult white woman. Despite putting up a great defence, Atticus loses because of a racist jury. In Watchman, Jean Louise recalls a teenage black boy accused of raping a white teenage girl. In this instance though, Atticus wins the case.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two books, and the one that has shocked fans, is Atticus’ change from the hero who believes in and defends “equal rights for all and special privileges for none”, to an entrenched racist. One person compared this to finding out Santa Claus is Satan.

Jean Louise makes the discovery after following her father and Henry to a meeting of the Maybomb County Citizens’ Council, which fights to uphold segregation and “the Southern Way of Life”, in which “no n*ggers and no Supreme Court” can tell people how to treat each other. Her shock triggers a psychosomatic response: she becomes physically ill as the cornerstone of her being is destroyed.

“She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do?’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him”.

The title of the book refers to a verse in the Bible that Jean Louise hears during a church sermon: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth”. It is for this watchman that Scout wishes when Atticus’ god-status is destroyed. She wants someone to explain the distinction between what a person says and what he means, about why justice is applied differently for different people.

Jean Louise turns to her uncle, Jack, for answers. He, however, is unable to provide her with anything more than cryptic, figurative responses during some of the most tedious dialogue I’ve come across this year (that includes E.L. James’ Grey). The ensuing arguments between Jean Louise and Jack, and Jean Louise and Atticus (as the latter tries to defend his position and his right to his views) are helter-skelter.

Everything that is right with Mockingbird is wrong with Watchman. The former’s message is clear but subtly crafted; the dialogue is genuine; the characters feel real; the story is forceful. Watchman, on the other hand is preachy, the dialogue convoluted, and the characters are paper cut-outs. The plot wraps up in a pure simplified cop-out, in which Jean Louise begins to accept that she had unfairly put Atticus on a pedestal, and that her family needs her to ‘help’ them back onto the right path.

There have been many questions about whether the 89-year old Lee, who is in an assisted-living home, wanted this book published. For most of her life she insisted she never wanted to do a second novel. Allegations and counter-allegations about how and when the manuscript was discovered are also currently flying between Lee’s lawyer and her literary agent.

The discrepancies in plot lines and the differences in writing style suggest this book, in its current form, was never meant for readers’ eyes. Some paragraphs describing Maycomb and its inhabitants are almost word-for-word the same in the two books. Why would someone write a sequel like that?

Go Set a Watchman sullies Harper’s legacy and it’s a damn shame.

Notable passage:

“She felt sick. Her stomach shut, she began to tremble. Hank. Every nerve in her body shrieked, then died. She was numb. She pulled herself to her feet clumsily, and stumbled from the balcony down the covered staircase. She did not hear her feet scraping down the broad stairs, or the courthouse clock laboriously strike two-thirty; she did not feel the dank air of the first floor. The glaring sun pierced her eyes with pain, and she put her hands to her face. When she took them down slowly to adjust her eyes from dark to light, she saw Maycomb with no people in it, shimmering in the steaming afternoon. She walked down the steps and into the shade of a live oak. She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk. She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened: Maycomb was looking back at her. Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets….

It happened so quickly that her stomach was still heaving. She breathed deeply to quieten it, but it would not stay still. She felt herself turning green with nausea, and she put her head down; try as she might she could not think, she only knew, and what she knew was this: The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly”.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Go Set a Watchman is published by Penguin Random House SA.

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