Wednesday, July 15, 2015

5 Reasons why I hesitate to read 'Go Set a Watchman'


Ever since I was 13 years old, I've considered Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird one of my all time favourites. When I heard about the release of it's sequel, Go Set a Watchman, fifty-five years further on, I was overjoyed. July '15 sounded like such a long time to wait, but now that it's here, I have misgivings and hesitate to click 'buy'. I'm surprised at myself, but here they are. Do you agree, or are you getting straight into this new release?

1) Jem's death

I'm not a big fan of one of my favourite characters passing away prematurely.

At the end of every novel, I always like to imagine futures for the characters I love. This sensitive, large-hearted, perceptive boy had so much to offer the world. He was supposed to be making his mark on it, not pushing up daisies before the age of 30. When that bombshell came out of Chapter 1, it hit me like a physical blow to the gut. Surely I'm not alone in this.

Jem's 'large-heartedness' may have extended to the physical realm. Reading between the lines, it would seem that he inherited the cardiac defect which also stole their mother at a young age. There were subtle hints in TKAM that Jem may have shared more traits from the maternal side, while Scout was far more like the Finches. Perhaps if they'd lived in a later decade. his life could have been extended by proper heart screening and surgery. Biographical detail tells us that Harper Lee also lost her brother at a young age, but even so, this is not the sort of detail I like to see translated to fiction. If there was no place for him in this book, couldn't she have just had him working overseas, or something?

2) Atticus' supposed racist sympathies

This is what seems to have everyone talking, and no wonder. The background of GSAW may have seemed reasonable to Harper Lee at the time she wrote it; an adult Scout is disillusioned by her discovery that the father she idolised had feet of clay after all. Sure, it's a fair enough theme and may work fine with any other book or character, but please not with Atticus Finch!

It might have even worked if this novel had been published first, following the order Lee had written them, but it's too late now!! He's already become a heroic icon, inspiring the public to work diligently at purifying our own hearts. Atticus has challenged us to regard all fellow humans in a truly inclusive, Christ-like manner, to bravely stick to what we know, deep down, is true, to not waver in the face of personal danger. His literary legacy has become more than mere human, and it's arguably unfair on the general public to disillusion us with his frailties now. Not after more than half a century of school essays in which millions of us have argued what a great man he is.

3) A depressed and jaded Jean Louise

Reviewers have paid homage to the 'sassy swagger' of the little Scout in TKAM, and that's what I loved about her too! It hurts inside to think that she's been around for long enough to have lost her edge, that life has molded her into just another harassed and careworn female. Losing the beloved brother she had sibling spats with, but who was her ultimate confidante, is tragic enough on its own. Some reviewers have mentioned that she has moments of being a bit annoying and histrionic in GSAW. I can well believe it, but it still makes me sad. Even the fact that she's put aside childish ways and decided to go by her formal Christian name is a bit of a loss. I hate the thought that life has a way of belting the sass and character out of people until they are wistful shells of their former selves.

4) What even happens?

I've been keeping my eye on early reviews. There were 15 on Amazon at the end of yesterday, which was the release date. These swelled to 18 as I was reading them. This morning, there were over 78, and will surely be in the triple figures soon. Having read several of them, I can see plenty of waffle about the theme, but hardly anything about a plot!

In TKAM, we had the sneaky shenanigans which revolved around trying to coax Boo Radley out, as well as all the drama surrounding Tom Robinson's trial. In GSAW, as far as I can tell, Jean Louise simply goes home and has lots of long discussions about human rights in drawing rooms with elderly relatives. She does have a boyfriend, but from what I could tell in my quick read of Chapter 1, she doesn't even like him all that much.

Maybe somebody who has read this book already can tell me, because I'd really like to know. Is there an actual plot?

5) Should it have simply been left, respectfully alone?

I've read articles in which Harper Lee has been described as a very private person who has always shunned publicity. Thrilled with the thought-provoking acclaim of TKAM, she felt that she did what she had to do, and that GSAW was an earlier, less polished story draft which she believed couldn't ever add anything TKAM didn't already deliver. I applaud her if she really thought that, instead of jumping to the normal writer's default of 'What should I write next?' whether she was burning with ideas or not.

 There are theories rife on internet that her hand was forced by business-thinking friends and relatives, now that she is nearing the end of her life and her faculties aren't as sharp as they once were. These articles suggest that having GSAW out in the world is the last thing Lee would have really wanted in her normal frame of mind.

Whether or not this is true, I did have a few doubts about the reception of this book all along, simply because TKAM is such a well-beloved classic. Even if GSAW is a literary masterpiece in its own right, it would be made an underdog at the very outset, simply because it will be compared to a book which many of us consider incomparable. Sure enough, when I look at the Amazon reviews page, there is the inverted bell curve I expected, with 1s and 2s already springing up to balance the 4s and 5s.

I've come across other novels by beloved authors, which haven't lived up to the amazing qualities of their first releases. They haven't even come close, and I've had the distinct feeling that the later insipid, 'meh' sort of follow-ups are the results of publishers and authors alike wanting to keep flogging dead horses. If there's nothing left in the tank, then it's dry, and it's such a pity when loyal fans have to bear the brunt of later releases which are pretty ordinary. I hope GSAW doesn't turn out to be something similar, put out in the world just because it was written by Harper Lee with characters from her classic.

So those are my five reasons for not wanting to dive straight into this hot new release, as I fully expected I would when I heard about it earlier in the year. If you have read it and would like to convince me either one way or the other, please go ahead.


  1. My sentiments exactly! Well put, Paula.

    1. I'm glad you agree with me, Rhonda. I've never written a review of a book I haven't read yet, but that feels a bit like what this list is.

  2. I agree with your comments, Paula, especially about Jem's death. I know some writers feel they are just writing realistically by putting in this kind of detail, but really, there is enough sadness in the world without adding unnecessary sadness to the books we read.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I don't think there was any reason why she had to kill him off. If it comes to a choice between devastating readers and leaving them happy over a choice which shouldn't make any difference, I wish everyone would go for the second. I totally agree with your comment.