The mystery of the sequel that was written first
Written in the 1950s, the sequel to Harper Lee's classic novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is due to be published this year. Gaby Wood takes a look at what is sure to be a publishing sensation.
Go Set a Watchman, which was written just before Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but is set 20 years after the events in that book take place, is not a lost novel. It's not an unfinished novel. It's not juvenilia, and it's not a book whose author wished destroyed, as Franz Kafka's were.
It is - very possibly - simply an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and now that it has been found "affixed to an original manuscript" of that famous book, it is being published to great fanfare as only the second book ever published by a famously reclusive author, whose sole novel thus far is one of the best-loved books of the past century.
The excitement over the imminent publication this July is perfectly justified, whatever the book's content or quality.
It is, if nothing else, of immense historical significance that such a book should exist, and we can't judge it in any other way until it's available to read.
However, it's mysterious that it should have come to light only now. In 1956, Lee submitted to her agent and her editor a manuscript we may now presume to be Go Set a Watchman.
The story took place in the mid-Fifties and centred on a young woman, nicknamed Scout, who returned from New York to visit her father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, in Alabama.
Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, suggested she retell it from the point of view of Scout as a child - or so we are now told.
That can't be quite right, since To Kill a Mockingbird is told by a grown Scout looking back on her childhood. But in any case, Lee and Hohoff worked on the manuscript for two and a half years, in the course of which the action shifted to Scout's youth, 20 years earlier.
The original book was shelved: it was filed as the seed from which To Kill a Mockingbird had flowered. This is the book we will soon be privileged to read.
What it shares with its famous successor stylistically will be fascinating to see.
There is another crucial curiosity, though. Go Set a Watchman is set in an Alabama contemporaneous with its writing - that is, the seat of the civil rights movement, site of recently desegregated schools and a year-long bus boycott, home to an imminent march that would change the course of history.
How that looked then to the white author - and how antiquated or relevant it looks to us now - will tell a story about America bound to linger well beyond its pages.