Thursday 23 November 2017

Go Set A Watchman - The best bits have been done better in Mockingbird

Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee, William Heinemann, £18.99

Tony Lyerly and his granddaughter Maraih Lyerly (3) wait with others to buy 'Go Set A Watchman' in Monroeville, Alabama, the birthplace of author Harper Lee. Photo: Michael Spoonybarger
Tony Lyerly and his granddaughter Maraih Lyerly (3) wait with others to buy 'Go Set A Watchman' in Monroeville, Alabama, the birthplace of author Harper Lee. Photo: Michael Spoonybarger
Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman

Emily Hourican

Go Set A Watchman is a hard book for the many fans of To Kill A Mockingbird to read, and was always going to be, regardless of the controversy surrounding publication. Mockingbird is far more than a book. It is a beloved text that has inspired millions of people. For this, Atticus Finch is mainly responsible, a true hero in literary form, followed by Scout; the child who couldn't stand injustice. Through her outraged eyes, readers were shown the enormous injustices of racism and prejudice, not as something old and wearily sad, but as something appallingly new, with the fresh power to shock.

Here, Scout, now Jean Louise, is grown up (although chronologically Watchman was written first). The tale is set in the 1950s, she lives in New York, and is contemplating marriage to childhood friend Hank. She has learned to wear a hat, and gloves, and to brush her hair. For those of us who remember her cussing in her overalls, fighting Jem and Dill, the transformation is devastating. She returns to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual holiday, where her father Atticus is now 72 and very arthritic. The town of her childhood has changed in small ways she doesn't like - her old house is now an ice-cream parlour - and in big ways that she cannot tolerate.

It has also changed in ways that readers will find upsetting. A major character from Mockingbird is now dead, something that is dropped almost casually into the plot in the first chapter. However, in defiance of the changes around her, and beneath the slightly more decorous dress, Scout is the same person: passionate, prone to anger, and entirely black-and-white in her thinking. She is also still unable to see the differences of race and social standing on which so much of Maycomb society is based; "all her life she had been with a visual defect . . . she was born colour-blind".

What is more marked is her inability to compromise, dissemble or fit in. Swiftly she realises that the Civil Rights movement looks different when viewed from New York. That at home in Maycomb, none of what she thinks is obvious is so at all, even to Atticus. This is the crux of the story - she comes to believe that "the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her" - but it is handled via a whole lot of quite polemical dialogue, played out between Scout and Atticus, Scout and Hank, Scout and Uncle Jack, even Scout and Aunt Alexandra, in which she rails against them for betraying her and tries to rationalise the love and hatred she feels for Maycomb, while they, in turn, talk to her about the proud individualism of the South and the virtues of the Confederate army.

It doesn't quite work. There's too much tell, not enough show, and all the stuff about Constitutional amendments is now very obscure. There is also plenty of deeply unpalatable stuff about Negroes being still in their childhood as a people and having made "terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways," that clearly belongs to the time, but is pretty stomach-churning now. At one point Scout accuses herself of losing any sense of humour; it's hard not to feel that the whole book lacks a similar lightness of touch.

In general, what drama there is feels remote in a way that Mockingbird does not; we are more conscious of the fact that although racism is still a problem in the United States, it no longer looks and sounds like this. This disconnect shows, again, what a remarkable book Mockingbird is, in the unanswerable simplicity of its right and wrong.

The portrait of Atticus is the hardest thing. Age has diminished him. Inevitably, perhaps, but still devastatingly. Whatever about Scout as a grown-up, with the attendant loss of charm, can Harper Lee really have wanted us to see Atticus like this? Maybe she wanted to show that across the span of a life, anyone can change, or be changed, by their circumstances. A fair point, but tough reading.

Lee can turn a phrase. Aunt Alexandra is described as having "river-boat, boarding-school manners", while Dill, based on Truman Capote, has "the face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat." There is a devastating scene with Calpurnia, but the sequences where Jean Louise drifts back to her childhood are by far the strongest, carrying with them the same golden haze that hangs over Mockingbird. The editor who recognised this and sent Lee deeper into that childhood, was inspired, and Watchman is probably interesting more for this, than as a book in itself. All its best bits have been done better, in Mockingbird.

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