Monday night at Foyles’ flagship bookstore in London, fans of To Kill a Mockingbird came from far and wide to share the last moments of suspense before sales of the new book by Harper Lee opened at midnight. There was southern music, food, a screening of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, and of course, piles and piles of orange-covered books.
Go Set a Watchman is possibly the most long and eagerly awaited new release of the past fifty years. The only comparisons I can think of are recent hyped-up sequels like additions to the Fifty Shades of Grey series or the release of a Harry Potter book. But the new Harper Lee has something extra special about it; since the initial publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 the reading world has absorbed Harper Lee’s characters as part of their own lives. They are real as members of our own history but also, in that beautiful literary way, stuck in the time and place in which we first met them. The addition of a new volume to our treasured relationship with Scout and Atticus is to shake up the canon and look at it afresh. It’s a huge risk.
So how can this average sized novel that supposedly sat in a safe box with its author’s assets for years possibly live up to the hype?
Well, to review the novel, I think I have to first confront its “cover,” so to speak, the imagery and story that precedes the novel itself.
A writer exposed
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Watchman media saga has been how Harper Lee has evolved as a public figure. She has spent fifty-five years as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and this single book has defined her style, her career, her themes. Inevitably, when I pick up my copy of Go Set a Watchman, I am ten times more aware of Harper Lee than I was when I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. Not only am I more aware of her as a writer, I’m also aware of her as an American woman, 89 years old, that slightly aloof face that graced the papers a few months ago when the Watchman news was announced, the woman whose nostalgia for the Finch family must be very different from ours.
Rumors that Lee had been somewhat taken advantage of in her old age were quieted recently, at Lee’s claim that she gave complete consent and was very pleased with the new publication. Still, even disregarding age and fame, there must be a feeling of profound change that occured to Harper Lee when she saw her new book on the shelves. From such a simple identity, as the author of the Mockingbird book, Harper Lee instantly became a more complicated name, connoting not just the canonical morality and dusty childhood scenes of Mockingbird but now many other things besides, a media frenzy, rumors, Atticus’ bigotry, and more. The new scenes of Go Set a Watchman.
So our new relationship with Harper Lee also affects the way I start to read Go Set a Watchman as I turn to the first page.
A new way to do books
If only all new releases were able to cause such celebration and ruckus, I found myself thinking as I walked round Foyles looking at the rows and stacks of orange hardback Watchmans. People have been so curious and excited about the new novel since it was announced in the press earlier this year that no attention seems too much to bestow on the book or its author. Every publication interested in literature has covered the release, images of the book are everywhere, generations of readers who discovered the book on their school reading lists are reacquianting themselves with the classic text.
But moreover, one of the most beautiful things about the reading era we’re currently in is the dynamism of it. When we’re about to buy a book now we can see trailers and interact with authors online. The publicity campaign that has struck the world press ahead of Go Set a Watchman’s release has been nothing short of a global party. And I think it’s a model that will continue to grow, and hopefully lesser known works will benefit from it too. Just imagine, for example, if all new releases could have a moving trailer, with train sounds, and narrated by the transporting voice of Reese Witherspoon, like Go Set a Watchman had in the Guardian.
By the time I open Watchman, I am rooting for it in a way that I haven’t really rooted for any other book before.
Go Set a Watchman
So finally I get my hands on a copy of the burnt orange volume. There is a moment of surprise when I see the whole story laying in wait, as if I don’t quite believe that the book would ever be more than teasers and suspense.
The first thing that jumps out at me is the language that Harper Lee uses to tell her story. Mockingbird has become so iconic for its characters and storyline, and so synonymous with the proverbial phrases that sum up its philosophy – “[Courage is] when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway,” for example – that it’s easy to forget the linguistic texture of the book. But Lee has a wonderful tone and rhythm, a way with words that both manages to conjure the heat and tradition of Maycomb but also has a sparkiness to it, something modern. In this way, the prose of Watchman feels like it belongs in the bookstore – it’s not an anachronism; it isn’t the freak that you might assume it is by the media coverage.
It’s a humble book. It’s hooks are small and slow, unlike most other bestsellers’ this year. It’s a family story and a county story. Relations between people are labored over, dialogue is deliberate and characterful. The story is moral, but it’s also accepting. Jean Louise (formerly Scout) is a woman now, has a sweetheart and thoughts of marriage all her own, but she resists being transformed by growing up. Again the thought of Harper Lee, the woman behind Jean Louise comes to my mind. I think of a feisty independent thinker, with a warm heart, and can see the author in the character in a way I never did in the first book.
To critics and seasoned readers, Watchman may not live up to its sister novel. Some certainly feel that they wouldn’t have published the volume had it not come from such a famous hand. But to a certain extent, the new novel is a more interesting literary prospect than the first. It is messier, has changes in pace, and its plot doesn’t seem to unfold in a clean suspenseful arc. But at the same time, it’s a bit challenging, it’s meandering, and I bet it will inspire endless conversations.
Astonishingly, despite the crazy magnification of every aspect of its release, Go Set a Watchman manages to transport me to Maycomb as if I’ve just landed there for the first time.
Are you reading Go Set a Watchman? What do you think? Do the controversies or media frenzies affect your reading experience, or does the book manage to rid itself of its surrounding hullaballoo? Do let us know – we’d love to talk about it!
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