Review of Go Set a Watchman, along with some nostalgic impression on To Kill a Mockingbird, both novels by the late Harper Lee.
I was around thirteen when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. As someone who lives all the way across the Pacific and growing up with English as a second language, it was a wild ride of lingo and figures of speech. I remember having to read the first few paragraphs over and over again until I managed to get what it was rambling about, but afterwards it was easier. I got swept in; American South is so far off from my own life that it might as well be a fantasy land, but it became familiar.
I’m not Scout Finch. I didn’t live in a small Alabama county, I didn’t have lemonade every summer afternoon–didn’t even have ‘summer’ to begin with. I’ve never played tire swing, and there was never the idea of daring your best friend to go up and knock on a possibly-haunted house. Dares, bets, and trading books are alien concepts.
But I understood her hate for school, her complicated relationships with her firm caretaker. I understood why she preferred to wear boyish clothes and despise dresses, even though breeches and overall are alien clothing. When she saw snow falling and thought it the end of the world, I related even though I’ve never seen natural snow in my life.
I was thirteen, close enough to my childhood to remember everything, and I read To Kill a Mockingbird as child-to-child memoir. The whole idea of racism and social structure flew over my head, but I didn’t miss the main lessons: understand others, and try to see things from their perspective. Don’t discriminate someone from their name or position, be courteous to all.
I read Go Set a Watchman six years later, an uncertain young adult already with a head full of societal intrigue and a bit too much politics. Jean Louise Finch is twenty-six-year old now, head full of her own intrigues, but she’s still the same person as she was seventeen years ago. It’s a different story with different perspective, but I could hear the same voice narrating it. Older, more scathing, less innocent and more full of her own ideas, but still the same rascal.
I enjoyed reading it, ultimately, but while the moral and political messages of To Kill a Mockingbird is written elegantly as a part of Scout Finch’s childhood mayhem, in Go Set a Watchman it takes front-and-centre stage, to the diminishing of everything else that made the first book such a classic. You can’t go two pages without a heavy-handed dose of what was so wrong about this-and-that. I agree and relate with nearly everything she said, but my God, do you have to be so incessant about it? The main lesson of the book, stated out loud in the later phases, ends up being its only saving grace.
Mostly, it’s a book filled with thoughts, opinions, and anecdotes with sprinkles of nostalgia and flashbacks, but not much of a story. Jean Louise came home, and everything was different. It tells and tells and tells–Maycomb is this and was that, in Jean Louise’s childhood she was this and did those things–but even with the strong and distinct voice, it’s not doing much of showing. Things happen. Characters come and go. Thoughts fly in and out.
Mockingbird itself is also full of little anecdotes and telling descriptions, but they had a livelier context. Put it this way: in remembering Mockingbird I can mention a dozen little events, character quirks, and relateable moments. In relating Watchman’s story, there’s not a lot that I remember aside from the whirlwind moral thoughts.
Yet, I can’t really find a way to fix that without breaking the story apart. The story itself is simply a conflict inside Jean Louise’s head. There’s nothing solid like the court trial or the overarching relationships in the first book. Go Set a Watchman‘s story is, simply, not very interesting. It lacks substance, but what little it has is stretched as far as it can goes. I won’t mind it as a shorter, companion epilogue piece to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it can’t stand as its own thing.
The moral lessons are excellent though. Here, I’m dismaying. Its lessons are excellent and I’m tempted to yell at everybody to read it so we can all be better persons who are willing to understand each other. But the presentation is a bit too self-centred, messily-written, and without going through and enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird first, most people will be inclined to drop it after only halfway through.
So it’s a mess. It’ll be a better story if it’s shorter. The lessons are excellent and a nice adult-minded upgrade to Mockingbird‘s childhood sensibilities, but suffer from heavy-handed telling and an empty plot. The least Watchman does is intensifies just how great Mockingbird was.
I do suggests you read it, if you have read the first book and like it enough you’ll be willing to see how it came to be instead of worshipping it. Just don’t expect it to have the same narrative brilliance. Expect the same voice, but firmer, wryer. Expect further exploration of Maycomb and its people, but from a more distanced perspective. Expect tons of anecdotes and backtracking.
It’s a good book, I like to think, it just suffers from the first-draft symptoms of having too many parts that should have been cut out and modified.
As an anecdote-filled books, at least I still find it miles and miles better than Haruki Murakami’s Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.