Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman” (2015) by Harper Lee

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I felt bad buying this book.

I felt bad reading it.

And now I feel bad writing about it.

I have avoided Go Set a Watchman as long as I possibly could; every time I saw it in a bookstore, I frowned and looked the other way. I didn’t want to be a part of it. In the end, I did give in. “You’re a literature blogger,” I told myself, “you can’t not talk about this book. You have a responsibility, this is one of things will you have to write about eventually.” So I took a deep breath and bit the bullet. I carried Go Set a Watchman around with me for a week, and every time I took it out, one of my friends or colleagues would point at the cover and say: “I’m so curious! Is it any good?” I have avoided giving a definite answer. “I don’t know yet, I’m only on page six.” “Too soon to say, I’m only halfway through.” Now that I’ve finished it, I can’t get away with this anymore; I have to have an opinion.

My opinion is that this book makes me sad – for so many reasons.

For those of you who have somehow missed the controversy, here is a brief summary: Harper Lee, author of one of the great American novels, deliberately never completed another book after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. She hated all the fame Mockingbird had brought her and became a recluse, avoiding all public attention as much as she could. She refused interviews, turned reporters away when they showed up at her door… And then, in the summer of 2014, HarperCollins announced that they would publish a new Harper Lee book and a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird at that. However, Go Set a Watchman is not a new book at all; it was actually an old manuscript from the 1950s, written when Harper Lee was still learning how to write. At the time, her editor was particularly interested in the flashbacks to the main character’s childhood and advised her to rewrite the story from the perspective of her younger self, Scout. Lee believed the manuscript to be lost, but then her attorney, Tonja Carter, came across it. Three months later, HarperCollins made their announcement that they would publish it. This means that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel – it’s a prequel. Sort of. Really, it is an unfinished, unedited first draft by a young writer who was struggling to put together her first novel.

As if marketing this rough draft as “Harper Lee’s new novel” and a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t problematic enough, there is also the matter of consent. You see, Harper Lee is 89 years old and ever since her stroke in 2007, she is blind and deaf. In 2011, her sister wrote that Lee would “sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” In its press releases, HarperCollins has worked very hard to present the image of a version of Lee who is delighted that her old work was rediscoverd, who enjoys all the attention it is getting, who is thrilled with the positive reviews. Yeah. The woman who would turn her back on anyone who made the mistake of mentioning Mockingbird to her. Who refused to talk about her book for years and never wrote another word. In her official public statement, Lee said:

“After much thought and hesitation I shared [the manuscript] with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Hear those alarm bells going off inside your head? I can hear them too.

Considering these circumstances, it barely even matters if Go Set A Watchman is any good or not. This book was a deeply dubious publishing stunt, playing right into the media’s eager hands and manipulating readers everywhere. This isn’t Harper Lee’s new novel and it is definitely not the masterpiece HarperCollins keeps insisting it is. It was a first try by a first-time writer that was never meant to see the light of day, especially not like this. In Lee’s own words, Go Set A Watchman is “a pretty decent effort.” Nothing more.

Okay, fine.

There are some decent passages in there, and some of the descriptions of Maycomb are truly lovely, but there is very little magic and certainly no closure. Jean Louise (or, grown-up Scout) goes back to her home town to visiting her ageing father Atticus, only to find out that he has dealings with some serious racists. They fight, but Atticus praises his daughter for taking a stand. She stops seeing him as a hero and starts seeing him as a man. In the end, they agree to disagree, and Jean Louise moves home to look after her father. The end. Feel unsatisfied? Me too – and so did Harper Lee and her publisher. They saw that this story could be more, that it could mean more. There is a reason Lee rewrote the whole thing and stuffed this manuscript in a drawer somewhere; she could do better, and she did.

There, I’m done.

Now can we please leave Harper Lee alone?


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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Go Set a Watchman” (2015) by Harper Lee

  • September 16, 2015 at 7:33 pm
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    I decided not to read this book due to the issues that you pointed out, but in the midst of all the controversy I also stumbled upon some more favourable reviews that made me think. I was particularly surprised by what Ursula K. Le Guin had to say about it… Now, I don’t think I will be reading Go Set A Watchman anytime soon, but her article kind of makes it worth it to keep the possibility in mind. She definitely raises some interesting questions about both novels. Anyway, I thought I could just leave the link here and see what you think about it!

    Reply
  • September 18, 2015 at 4:46 am
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    Ugh. Part of me wants to read this book, just to see what all the hype is about, and just to get something more from the author of TKAMB. But… the whole questionable consent thing. And the whole “kill your heroes” thing. IDK.

    Reply
    • September 21, 2015 at 10:49 am
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      That was my struggle as well, I can relate!

      As for the “kill your heroes” argument, I’m not entirely sure if it applies here. Since this manuscript was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee technically created a “hero” where there wasn’t one before – the order of writing matters. I’ve seen so many people say that this book complicates matters where To Kill a Mockingbird simplified them, and I can see why (it is definitely something to think about), but again, I think that it is telling that this was not the version of the story that made the cut in the end.

      You could say that Mockingbird does not confront us with the morally gray quite as much as Watchman does and that is why it’s more popular, because it’s “easier”, but you could also say that Lee has created an example of how things could be done, a better alternative to the truth. Less messy, yes, but perhaps more effective by taking a different approach. Role models matter.

      (This got a bit rambly, but I hope you know what I mean.)

      Reply

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