Book review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 Permalink

I read To Kill A Mockingbird because I had to. It was part of our high school syllabus and (interestingly) one of the few books we had to read that I actually read. I’ve read it since, but not recently. And while it remains a beautifully-written portrayal of a terrible time in history and a reminder of my teenage years, I was in no hurry to read Harper Lee’s much-awaited sequel.

My biggest fear was that Go Set a Watchman would be irrelevant. Readers of the 21st century are pretty inured to the race and gender issues which characterised our first outing with Scout, Jem, Atticus and Tom Robinson.

And I pondered on the pressure Lee must be under. So many authors with great debut novels have fallen prey to the second-book syndrome. Often it’s not even about the book itself or the writing, but rather readers’ expectations. And after five decades the pressure must have well and truly built for the author of one of the world’s most beloved novels.

Nevertheless, like gazillions of others I read the first chapter of  Go Set A Watchman in the days before the book’s release. And I was disappointed.

We were very casually informed, for example, that a main character had died and Scout… well, Scout just didn’t seem like Scout. I prepared myself for the worst.

And was pleasantly surprised.

In fact, after picking up my pre-ordered copy today I planned to spend a moment glancing over the first few chapters before reading it later this week. However chapters two and three were fabulous and suddenly I was hooked.

go set a watchman by harper lee

What it’s about

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Go Set A Watchman takes place 20 years after its predecessor (in the 1950s, at the time the book was written). Twenty-six year old Scout—now known by her real name, Jean Louise—is making her annual pilgrimage home from New York to Maycomb, Alabama for a short holiday. Atticus is still practising the law at 72 although he has an offsider in the amicable Henry, who has his heart set on marrying Jean Louise.

Jean Louise is prepared to spend her precious holiday doing battle with the aunt who takes care of her father and warding off Henry’s marriage proposals; but she’s not prepared for what she discovers about her own family, particularly the father she’s idolised for so long.

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 realised that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious… p. 117

Jean Louise has built her life on the values she adopted in childhood and can’t believe her memories don’t reflect reality.

What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked? p. 150

My thoughts

There is no doubt Harper Lee can spin a great yarn. As was the case in TKAM we’re taken off on all sorts of tangents as she shares snippets of local history and events. My favourite parts of the novel however are the conversations Jean Louise has with those around her. Scout’s belligerent and blunt voice continues to shine through.

Lee can be a little long-winded at times but certainly has a way with words (my personal fave!):

She touched yesterday cautiously, then withdrew. p. 142

and can certainly turn a phrase…

That her son had developed all the latent characteristics of a three-dollar bill escaped her notice…. p. 28

The novel’s told from Jean Louise’s point-of-view in third person but every so often switches to first and second, which is a little bewildering. I had to stop and check she wasn’t actually saying those things… rather they were akin to a voice-over. Like serial-killer Dexter confessing his darkest secrets or Bridget Jones sharing the results of her daily weigh-in. #Sortof

There’s a lot happening in this novel and much of the minutiae went over my head, including elements about the confederacy, supreme court actions, the US constitution and 10th amendment. I also had to google NAACP. And quite frankly I know (and care) very little about the differences between the beliefs of catholics vs baptists vs methodists. Unfortunately some of the arguments about religion and the role of government are (sadly) very deja-vuish.

But there are many lessons on offer. Pages 235 – 256 are freakin’ phenomenal. And scary at the same time. There are some amazing lines in those pages and I shared some on twitter and elsewhere with the hashtag, #faaarck.

I mean, I grew up right here in your house, and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. p. 247

I read a post by a US book blogger on the weekend discussing suggestions Atticus was racist in TKAM. I didn’t think so. Paternalistic perhaps. But Go Set A Watchman clarifies his position.

Lovers of TKAM should be prepared for the fact that Go Set a Watchman includes ‘some’ characters from its predecessor. Not ALL and not even some of your favourites. We do however have some great new characters that I can’t recall from TKAM including her Uncle Jack, a retired (and somewhat eccentric) doctor.

My verdict

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, though I know potential readers really won’t be swayed by my opinion when it comes to the legacy of Scout and Atticus. The pacing was a bit off and plot a bit meandering at times. I was perhaps also a little frustrated by the ending, but it’s a thought-provoking, surprisingly addictive and entertaining read.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was published by Penguin Random House today, 14 July 2015.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. (Isaiah v6)

Buy now via Booktopia (Australia) or Amazon (International)

Will you be reading Go Set A Watchman?

PS. As an aside, if you don’t know…. GSAW was written before TKAM, but publishers so liked the reminiscences of young Scout so much they requested a novel written from her point of view. That novel became TKAM and GSAW was shelved. 

37 Comments
  • beccystokes@yahoo.com
    July 14, 2015

    Well, wow, I guess! I’ve not read To Kill a Mockingbird, why not? I don’t know, anyway, setting aside my dislike of hyped up literature, maybe I should, then, go on to read this. Thanks for a great review

    • Debbish
      July 14, 2015

      It’s interesting to think it’s written by someone over five-six decades ago who was able to mentally debate race issues which would have been pretty controversial at the time. (And when I say debate, I mean she obviously had to write both sides!)

  • MyBlissPoint
    July 14, 2015

    My copy arrives today and I am excited to read it. TKAM is my favorite book of all time, so I have to read this. Based on all the media scrutiny I have had low expectations, but your review gives me hope.

    • Debbish
      July 14, 2015

      Yes… definitely better than I hoped. It’s hard to describe without giving much away. Less ‘happens’ than in TKAM which had the trial, Boo etc. There’s something lovely about Lee’s story-telling abilities though.

  • Michelle Weaver (@pinkypoinker)
    July 14, 2015

    Well this is the very first review I’ve read. I adored TKAM and just read it again recently in anticipation of the sequel. Although I read today she actually wrote this first?? Anyway, it sounds like a good read because I love Scout’s voice.

    • Debbish
      July 14, 2015

      I think other reviews might have been about today but I didn’t want to read any before I did mine. Very occasionally I’ll read another review or something in Goodreads and it’ll have me doubting my thoughts. Of course sometimes it’s useful later. I reviewed a book the other day that I felt wrapped up too quickly and after I’d written my review I posted the summary in Goodreads and was relieved to find others said the same thing!

      PS. I didn’t enjoy Scout’s voice in Chapter 1, but Chapt 2 & 3 drew me back in. I guess I can see why the publishers wanted Lee to go away and write something from Scout’s POV.

  • Jess
    July 14, 2015

    Can wait to get my hands on this!

    • Debbish
      July 14, 2015

      I loved some bits and felt like I needed to skim some bits. I’m long-winded and prone to go off on tangents so completely understand Lee’s problem there!

  • Stormi D Johnson
    July 14, 2015

    I haven’t ever read To Kill A Mocingbird though I have heard about it and seen parts of the movie. This isn’t something I think I would be interested in reading, but I was curious to see what people thought. They were talking about it on the news how people were disappointed because it made Atticus out to be racist, but I think people just need something to complain about..lol.

    • Debbish
      July 14, 2015

      I have to admit some of the stuff in the pages I quote is a bit surprising and very confronting. In TKAM Atticus tells Scout to put herself in other’s shoes to see things from their point of view. So… I tried to imagine what it was like in the 1950s for someone like Atticus and having this sense his way of life was being threatened. (Much of it involved scare tactics, but you can see it happening today with the Middle East or Muslims etc.)

      Some of the quotes I didn’t share include:

      “You realise that our negro population is backward, don’t you?”

      And similar. In Australia we had a ‘White Australia’ policy and there was a very paternalistic approach to Indigenous Australians and where they should live etc. I suspect ‘some’ people at the time thought they were doing the right thing and now we have the benefit of hindsight. I can’t help but wonder what will come as a surprise to future generations when they look back at the 21st century!

  • Ms Styling You
    July 14, 2015

    TKAM was also the only prescribed reading in school that I enjoyed Deb! Great review and thanks for getting it up so quickly. Yes, I’ll be reading.

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      To this day I’ve never read My Brother Jack, 1984 or Animal Farm Nikki. I’m sure they’re good, but well… that’s why god invented CliffsNotes!

  • Trish MLDB
    July 14, 2015

    I’m going to re -read TKAM (i read it at school too) , then GSAW.

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      I didn’t get a chance to re-read TKAM but watched the movie last week as a refresher!

  • brandileigh2003
    July 15, 2015

    Sorry to hear that the 1st chapter was disappointing, but glad to hear that it got better after

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      It did. The second two chapters involve Scout (JL) in conversations and I think that’s one of the strengths of the novel, as well as the way Lee phrases things.

  • Nise' (Under the Boardwalk)
    July 15, 2015

    I’ve been on the fence about reading this book and have been avoiding reviews of it as well. I believe that I will eventually read the book. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      You’re welcome Nise. I’d been very much the same but got hooked by Scout in Chpts 2 & 3 where… despite now being an educated city-living twenty-six year old, she’s still as tomboyish and ‘crass’ as she was in TKAM. I can see why the publishers wanted more of that!

  • Mrs M
    July 15, 2015

    I struggle to read full stop, that said heading to the US later in the year and on the hunt for a good book, I’ve set myself the challenge to at least get through 1.

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      I much prefer hard copies but I know a lot of people like eBooks are useful for travel as you can store so many on your tablet or device. And great to read while stuck at airports or on planes. Or while struggling with jetlag of course!

  • Sarah @She Writes
    July 15, 2015

    I have been wanting to re read TKAB for some time now, but don’t feel I can do so on my iPad. It is a classic that needs to be read in paper form. I’m going to go and buy it and then I’ll give Go Set a Watchman a read. Thanks for the review!

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      Oh yes I hear that! I was surprised when I picked up my copy of GSAW and it was a REAL hardcover, not just large paperback. It felt very appropriate! I read in the bath and I had visions of dropping it! 😉

  • Suzie
    July 15, 2015

    Love your reviews! Read I let you go by Clare Macintosh and Memory Man by David Baldacci on your recommendation during my recent holiday and absolutely loved both! Not yet 100% sure about this one though….

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      Oh thanks so much Suzie! I can understand people’s reticence. Someone said something similar today and I suggested it was like a movie. You rush out and see it or wait until it’s on DVD or TV etc. (In the book’s case if someone lets you borrow it or you get it at the library).

      K

  • Maggie
    July 15, 2015

    I have GSAW on my ipad to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the first chapter that was released prior to the novel. I think Harper Lee is a great wordsmith and I had goosebumps at her prose. I also think that TKAM is relevant today. The issue of racism is unfortunately very much alive in society and the world would do well to heed some of the lessons in Harper Lee’s timeless work. Thanks for your review and thanks to Nikki Parkinson for sharing your blog.

    • Debbish
      July 15, 2015

      Oh yes Maggie it’s scary how much we see history repeating itself. And the writing is lovely. I started sharing some of my fave quotes on Twitter but there were too many and I had to stop! And… there were some great ones in the pages I mention but sharing them would be giving too much of the plot away (though I think most people kinda know what this book’s about).

      I find it more intriguing knowing that she wrote this first and then wrote Atticus the way she did in TKAM. I wonder what everyone would have thought if they’d been released in the order she wrote them. GSAW then its prequel, TKAM?

  • La La in the Library
    July 16, 2015

    I won’t be reading it because I find it fishy that she had said time and time again that To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book she would ever publish, and within days of her having a stroke and being unable to communicate all of a sudden the lawyer finds this lost manuscript and gets permission from a woman, who can not make her wishes known, to publish it. Her Goodreads bio even reflected her intentions not to ever publish again, but when I went to get the link for a friend, I saw her bio had been changed (even the profile pic). now the lawyer is saying they have found several other stories in her safety deposit box that they intend to publish.I am hoping at some point a literary scholar will analyse the writing to see how much of the story was written by someone else.

    • Debbish
      July 16, 2015

      Wasn’t it also rumoured Capote wrote TKAM? I’ve never actually read / seen any interviews with Lee to see if she’s as sassy and articulate as the books would suggest she is. I did read one yesterday by someone from her hometown who talked about trying to get interviews with her decades ago and she kept sending letters back saying… “Hell No!”

      That gave me hope! 🙂

  • Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me
    July 16, 2015

    Yay thanks for this – now should I back and read TKAM again? It’s been about 20 years, or do I read this first and then TKAM again! Gosh you get through some books my friend!! xx

    • Debbish
      July 16, 2015

      Oh that’s a hard one. I think this will have more impact if you re-read TKAM. (Having said that, I just watched the movie as I didn’t have a copy!)

      But it makes TKAM more interesting… to think this came first.

  • Leanne @ Deep Fried Fruit
    July 17, 2015

    I just read about the author and the road to getting the “other” book published in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Such a fascinating story. Now to read your review puts everything in place!
    Thanks Deb

    • Debbish
      July 17, 2015

      It is interesting Leanne. Everyone loved the Atticus of TKAM… but I wonder if THIS Atticus had come first (which he kinda did!), what would they think?!

  • Rita @ View From My Home
    July 19, 2015

    Wonderful review, Deb! You have covered all bases and show both sides of the coin. I thank you for this because I am so ambivalent about reading it but after reading your review, perhaps in the future…
    p.s. Harper Lee was friends with Truman Capote (U.S. author) in real life when kids and she based the character of the little boy visiting and staying next door in TKAM (Dib? sorry, don’t have the book in front of me) on him.

    • Debbish
      July 19, 2015

      Dill gets a brief mention in GSAW – he’s off overseas from memory. I thought he might have swooped home for some romance with Scout. But no…

  • Angelized1st
    July 20, 2015

    Great review! This does make me want to read the book. If not, then at least re-read TKAM. It’s been so long, that I don’t remember everything.

  • Teddyree
    July 20, 2015

    Yours is the first review I’ve read Deb, and I’m so glad you loved it. I bought it on audio and I wanted to listen/read it without the review hype taking precedence. I reread TKAM when my son was in senior so it’s still pretty fresh but I didn’t realise this was pre-TKAM. Looking forward to it 🙂

    • Debbish
      July 20, 2015

      Yes… written before but set after. And quite different.

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