Harper Lee’s second published book has truly killed the Mockingbird.
In the classic 1960s novel To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM), Lee wrote: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
Until I learned about the novel’s “sequel” Go Set a Watchman (GSAW), I never realised my true love of its predecessor nor had I feared its beauty could be ruined for me – as sequels so often do.
It was a frigid day when I first cracked the pages of TKAM, and it was a cold rainy day when, just over a year later (and 17,000 kilometers from where I started the series), I sat glued to my seat in anticipation of what would happen next in the life of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
Go Set a watchman by Harper Lee – 278 pages
Published by Random House. RRP $32.99
Set 20 years on from the events of TKAM, Go Set A Watchman follows Scout on her annual trip back to her childhood home in Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father Atticus, whose body may be suffering from the effects of time but whose personality is not. As events unfold, Scout is once again immersed in the experience that is living in a small Southern town. Her past flashes before her, revealing stark contrasts between her memories of people and who they are today.
As the truth comes to light, characters are shown for their true selves, sometimes in direct contradiction to our assumptions about them. Like a punch to the face, these revelations show characters not as simple creatures but maddeningly complex individuals. Sadly, this may ruin the novel for many TKAM fans. The major clash between assumed ideals and the core personality of characters is a truth that is hard to accept.
With this direct contrast between Scout’s memories and the present day, GSAW depicts the loss of innocence that the Mockingbird once represented. Though now it is the last vestige of childhood innocence that is stripped away. It destroys the innocence of nostalgic childhood memories of sweet summer days.
GSAW is a beautifully crafted narrative with engaging characters and language that live up to the expectations TKAM set so many years ago (and at times caused me to have to turn to the dictionary). It does, however, show its age. Despite being published in 2015, it was actually written before Harper Lee crafted TKAM. It is full of anachronistic phrases and out-dated terms for African Americans that fit the setting of the book but today are unused and bordering on offensive.
Despite the anachronism and pain of seeing once-loved characters fall from grace, Go Set A Watchman is worth the read, worth fighting the cold and rain to get and worth the punch it gives. It is a novel that could potentially be seen as a classic of an era that ended long before I was born. – Ben Atkinson-James
Photo by Jessica Heckley.