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Books

REVIEW: Go Set A Watchman

Some of your hope - some of your dreams about the good at the heart of so many human beings - may be about to drown, says Caroline Overington, as she reviews the most talked about book of the year.

Brace yourself.
If you loved To Kill A Mockingbird, and if you just can’t wait to read Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set A Watchman, brace yourself, for you will find lines like this:
“You realise that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?”
“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our churches and theatres?”
“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
“Do you want them in our world?”
Who says such things?
Atticus.
Yes, Atticus. Dear, wise, upright, gentle, stoic Atticus Finch says such things, and to whom does he say them?
He says them to his daughter. He says them to Scout.
How can that even be? Can this really be the same Atticus who defended the innocent Tom Robinson on a charge of rape, in Mockingbird?
Who stood guard outside Tom Robinson’s cell all night long, to ensure that no mob of good old boys with a swinging noose could get to him before he got his day in court?
Who enjoined the all-white jury to remember that all men are created equal?
Can this really be the Atticus that little Scout and Jem and even Dill sat and watched in awe from the balcony?
Remember how Scout looked up to Atticus? How wise and good he was?
Not anymore.
“You’re a coward and snob, Atticus,” Scout says, in this new book.
“I looked up to you and I never will again.”
Atticus, Scout … can this really be you?
Well, yes and no.
The story behind this week’s publication of Watchman goes like this:
Harper Lee wrote this book in 1957. She handed it to her editor, Tay Hohoff, who decided not to publish, at least, not in that form. There were some lovely anecdotes, some wonderful writing, but the story didn’t quite work.
It was laboured.
It was full of preachy lectures.
She urged Harper to try again, but rather than tell the story from the point of view of a grown-up woman – Scout – returning from New York to the small Southern town of her childhood, why not tell it from the point of view of Scout as a child?
Harper Lee
So the young Harper Lee sat down and wrote, wrote, and re-wrote, at one point becoming so frustrated she threw the whole manuscript out the window of her New York apartment into the snow.
Ms Hohoff ordered her to go and get it, and to keep writing, writing, writing, until she got it right.
That’s how To Kill A Mockingbird was born.
Go Set A Watchman is essentially a first-draft. It was never meant to see the light of day.
Earlier this year, a lawyer who looks after Harper Lee’s affairs announced that she had found a copy of Watchman amongst Harper Lee’s things and, having sought the blessing of the near-deaf, near-blind, 89-year-old Harper Lee, she passed it onto publishers in New York, who couldn’t wait to get it out.
And here it is, turning everything we thought we knew about Atticus, Scout, and even about Harper Lee – people so good we named our children for them – on its head.
The idea behind Mockingbird is a simple one: children are not born racist. They learn racism and bigotry and hatred from the societies in which they live.
Also: there is no set of behaviours or traits that can be ascribed to any particular group of people: blacks are not slovenly, or shifty by nature; white people are not by nature honest and good.
You can take a black man at his word. You might not take a white man at his. It all depends on the individual.
It took courage in the race-segregated South to stand up for that idea, and Atticus had all the courage in the world.
When a good black man was accused of a heinous crime by a white man known to be a liar and a cheat and a drunkard, Atticus stood up for him.
Scout, and her brother, and their little cousin, watching from the balcony, drank it all in.
Yet, in this new-old book, in this first draft, we see that Atticus thinks that blacks are “in their childhood as people.”
It’s enough to make you weep.
So, should you read it?
Of course you should! Watchman is in no sense is it as good as Mockingbird. That idea is just laughable. The wisdom simply isn’t there. This is a book about a girl who goes to New York City and comes back contemptuous of small-town folk.
Why can’t they see the world as she, having spread her wings, now sees it?
That idea isn’t marvellous. That’s just a juvenile yawn.
Some of the writing is lovely. Of Scout’s journey back to Alabama on a train, Harper Lee writes: “The fat genie of a porter materialized when she pushed a button on a wall.”
You can see him, can’t you?
The train “honked like a giant goose” as it “rumbled across the Chattahoochee into Alabama.”
You can see that too, right?
Describing Atticus’s sister, Harper Lee says she “stood up and smoothed the various whalebone ridges running up and down her person.”
Of her manner, she says: “She was a disapprover; she was an incurable gossip.”
Lovely, lovely, lovely.
Who can blame the publisher for wanting to get this book out? They’ve sold two million copies in the first week. It’s tough out there, for books. It’s hard to find something that people want to read. They want to read this, and given that Harper Lee has said, through the lawyer who visits her in the nursing home, that she wants to see it published, they should certainly get the chance.
But brace yourself. Some of your hope - some of your dreams about the good at the heart of so many human beings - may be about to drown.

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