Thursday, July 16, 2015

Harper Lee's invigorating Go Set A Watchman

I was critical of New York Times review of this new release for breaking the publisher's July 14 embargo - it would have been party to a clear breach of contract - but nevertheless Michiko Katukani's take on the book is well worth reading. For her this 'sequel' was unexciting and unlovely in its focus on the now bigoted racist, Atticus.

A more positive review by Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian, does the book far more justice.

There have been lots of reviews - the majority rather negative.

But I agree with Romei. Go Set A Watchman is wonderful, stimulating, and a real pleasure to read. 

As much as anything it's a novel of dialogues, debates and ideas. And wit abounds. Scout, known by her real name Jean Louise and now in her mid-twenties, is a delightful, highly intelligent and feisty young woman who has spent the last few years in New York. This is a very playful telling by Lee who obviously identifies with her richly drawn and extremely likable character. 

Jean Louise's adult awakening to Atticus is so much more meaningful knowing as we do the child Scout's naive view of her saintly father in To Kill A Mockingbird. The two books enrich each other immeasurably. In fact they both need each other. It was pure editorial genius that Lee was persuaded to first retell the story from the child's point of view rather than proceed to publish Go Set A Watchman. But why did Lee and her publisher decide not to release the first book at all, rather than a few years later? Perhaps so as not to destroy the magic of Atticus that had taken hold in the public imagination? I guess we'll never know.

Unlike in TKAM, a strain of high amusement runs through the GSAW narrative. It has a vastly different tone, at times reading like a satirical village comedy. But Lee manages to expertly combine this playfulness with a serious and savage critique of racism in the South. It is a fiercely passionate denunciation of white supremacism and Lee is very angry indeed. The writing in the heated arguments, particularly those between Jean Louise and her father, is rich, powerful and disturbing. The contrasting ideas and beliefs are fully articulated and the reader served a sumptuous, invigorating feast. 

The final few chapters are intense, and some critics doubt their realism and credibility. Atticus is condemned, in fact demolished by an out of control Jean Louise, but gets a chance to explain his position. It's rational. He's a liberal, as we've always known, but now in his senior years, an Establishment one. He's a lawyer.

I thoroughly recommend you read this book, but if you haven't read TKAM you must read that first.

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