Ever since it was announced that a second Harper Lee book was to be published debate started to surround the book. Firstly, should it have been put out at all or was an old lady being exploited. Then when more was known about the book the discussion began to grow because Atticus Finch, inspiration to many equality activists, was apparently a racist. The latter led to serious debate on Channel Four News whilst the midnight release of the book also hit the news. So what is Go Set a Watchman like? Is it actually worth a read?
Well, I think the fact my daughter book the book on Wednesday and by Sunday evening it had been read by two of us and was ready to go on to a third person says something in itself. The interest we had in the book is not surprising bearing in mind the media frenzy I have already referred to and the fact that both of us had studied To Kill A Mockingbird for GCSE, over 20 years apart, and it had left an imprint on us both. Yet, that is not enough to account for the speed with which we devoured the book. It holds ones attention and is highly readable because it continues to raise questions you want to know the answer to throughout.
In this review I am assuming that you have a knowledge of To Kill A Mockingbird, simply because I don’t know anybody who doesn’t. If you happen to be the exception I would suggest you read that first.
This was written before Mockingbird and is rawer and in some ways more uncompromising. Set in 1950’s rural Alabama the geography described is somewhat alien to some of us, yet the central themes continue to reoccur in one form or another and that is why I believe that this book is not only a good read but a crucial read to engage with. The fact it is a sequel but written previously to Mockingbird does mean one feels occasionally that characters who were in that book are occasionally squeezed in with awkward explanations of why they are not key characters within this text.
Firstly, there is the theme of racism placed centrally in the book which seeks to explore the complexities of a time of change when the civil rights movement was growing from the viewpoint of the time itself. The use of the N word throughout jars in a book published today, but sits perfectly in a book written in the past.
Reading the book one is forced to ask what is racism, who is racist, how should it be dealt with and are what are the problems of being colour blind when it comes to race and ethnicity.
Alongside this and intertwined with it are issues of how one relates to their aging parents and how does the young adult who has escaped a suffocating environment deal with family when they return. The description of Atticus’
Then there is the question of how the person coming back home deals with the change they will inevitably encounter when they don’t necessarily expect that change.
There is also the key them of class division and attitudes towards those labelled as “white trash” and the barriers put in the way of those so defined.
Religion also plays a part in the book as a recent Huff article explained. There was a part which I found particularly amusing regarding a change in structure in the local Methodist Church and the debates around music. It was so funny because 60 years on and thousands of miles away it could just as likely happen today.
The way in which the church can help maintain social control and the hypocrisy sometimes involved is also highlighted in a wider debate which the book contains about the place the collective conscience should have in society.
There is also a love story within the book which echoes of reality rather than sentimentality.
Was I glad I read it? Yes, as I indicated it was a very good read. Did it disillusion me? Yes, but in a good way. By the end of the book I understood why the book had to be written in the form it was and why it may have been a good thing that a purely fictional character, who we could invest so much in simply because he was a literary creation rather than a real fallible person, was shown not to be what we as a society had made him.
Did I feel comfortable at the end of the book? No, of course not. It is not a “nice” read, it challenges and confronts but in my mind it is no bad thing when one is forced to think by a book.
Note: This review first appeared on my other blog Learning from Hagar and Co but this is the blog I am now using for reviews