Review: Go Set a Watchman
If there was ever a book to read through the night, it's Go Set a Watchman. Having waited fifty-five years for a second book from Harper Lee, we couldn't wait a moment more to read it. Bookseller Joseph Knobbs was one of the first people in the queue at Waterstones Piccadilly's midnight opening and, having finally got his hands on Go Set a Watchman, decided he didn't really need to sleep. Hours later, having spent the night back in Maycomb and surely being amongst the very first in the country to finsh the book, he's written his first impressions below.
Go Set a Watchman opens with something readers have dreamt of for decades; a re-entry into Harper Lee’s fictional world of Maycomb, Alabama. Jean Louise Finch, now a 26-year-old woman, is taking the train from New York back to her childhood home – and we’re along for the ride.
‘She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.’
Any concerns that the crystal clear, frank and, above all, compassionate voice of Harper Lee might be diminished by the years are laid to rest in the first chapter.
Most importantly, Jean Louise Finch, that’s Scout to you and me, the knock-about, boisterous tom-boy, beloved of readers everywhere, has grown into the strong, single-minded young woman you hoped she might.
The first big laugh of the book - and despite the big issues Lee tackles both here and in To Kill a Mockingbird, her writing is always good humoured - sees our protagonist changing out of her New York duds and into her ‘Maycomb clothes’. Grey slacks, a black, sleeveless blouse, white socks and loafers, seemingly just to irritate her Aunt Alexandra and to amuse herself. It’s clear from the off that in growing up, she hasn’t lost any of her fight.
We’re 22 pages in before she’s called ‘Scout’ by anyone. It’s a mild scold from her father, Atticus, for provoking and arguing with her aunt (something the childhood Scout couldn’t resist, either). It’s a wonderful moment, and one you’re waiting for from page one. We’re quickly re-introduced to Atticus, Aunt Alexandra, Calpurnia and Uncle Jack.
Such is the warmth of the writing in these early scenes that a reader could be forgiven for wanting things to stay that way. To have no demands made of them and slide off into nostalgia.
But Go Set A Watchman is about change, both personal and political, and by the time it’s finished, both Scout and the reader will have been put to the test. There are warnings in the early chapters:
‘She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person. She was afflicted with a restlessness of spirit.’
When Scout returns to Maycomb, she has her view of the world and, crucially, her view of her father almost irreparably challenged. When she sees and hears terrible things, some of them throwing her loved ones into an unflattering, darker light, she begins the personal crisis which marks Go Set a Watchman’s most painful chapters.
Race is at the heart of this novel, as it was at the heart of Mockingbird. We’re in a time of great change, cooling relationships and heated debate. There is no major trial this time. No dramatic antagonists with pitchforks or knives. The plot moves, rapidly, centring on belief. And the stakes are as high as a young woman’s mental well-being.
It’s completely gripping.
There is an uncomfortable, concerning amount of time where we believe that not only has Scout been betrayed, but so have we. Everything we thought we knew about Mockingbird is up in the air.
But despite its challenges, and they are supposed to be challenges, there is so much to simply enjoy here. Interspersed with the main narrative we have several chapters set in the Mockingbird-era, and events just after it. Seeing Scout, Jem and Dill play is a joy. Hearing about what has become of characters from Harper Lee's first novel, both major and minor, is illuminating.
But seeing Scout as a grown woman, grappling with change, working out what the world is and where she belongs on it, is completely gripping.