Does Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman live up to the hype?

As Harper Lee’s much anticipated follow-up to her classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird gets mixed reviews from critics, Chris Bond gives his verdict on Go Set A Watchman.

Harper Lee's new book Go Set A Watchman goes on sale at Waterstones in Leeds. (Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe.)

YOU have to go back to the publication of the final instalment of the Harry Potter saga eight years ago to find a book that has caused such a flurry of excitement.

The much-anticipated follow-up to Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird went on sale yesterday, with bookshops around the country staying open all night to cope with demand.

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At Waterstones in Leeds, around 120 people, from students to pensioners, stayed up late to make sure they were among the first to get their hands on a copy of Go Set A Watchman.

It was a similar story at their stores in York and Sheffield where fans took part in an American-themed quiz and watched the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird in the run-up to midnight when the book was released.

Part of the hype surrounding the publication is the story behind it. After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, Lee set aside Go Set a Watchman and never returned to it. The original manuscript was later believed to have been lost until last autumn, when the author’s friend Tonja Carter discovered it by chance, attached to a typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set A Watchman is guaranteed to be a bestseller this summer, more than half a century after Lee’s story of racism and injustice in the fictional town of Maycomb in the American South first hit bookshelves and became an overnight success.

The original story and its central characters – Scout, her brother Jem and their lawyer father Atticus – are known and loved by millions of readers around the world.

But some people have been left “baffled and distressed” at the revelation that the new book paints Atticus as a racist “bigot” who went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting. It has also been met with a mixed reception from literature critics with one reviewer describing it as “thought provoking” while another branded it a “bad book”.

Dr Andrew Warnes, a reader in American Studies at the University of Leeds, is surprised by the level of interest it has caused. “To Kill A Mockingbird is a fantastic novel and is beautifully written. You have this powerful sense of nostalgia but at the same time it’s set in a community that’s bigoted and has a propensity for violence, so it’s an uncomfortable nostalgia.”

He is interested how people will react once they’ve read the book. “Cynics might say that American race relations and American culture looks for a redemptive white figure to combat racism. There were lots of African-American activists in the 1950s and 60s who were fighting racism and risking their lives doing it, yet Atticus Finch seems to loom large in the vanguard of this cause. So it will be interesting to see how people respond to this liberal icon being taken away.”

While some reviewers have criticised the book, Barnsley-born author Joanne Harris believes it had “much in common” with the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, although she admits the portrayal of Atticus was a “shattering blow” for fans. “This is not juvenilia. The book once described by the author as ‘a pretty decent effort’ is much more than that, but because of its close links with Mockingbird, it is impossible to read it in isolation,” she said, writing in the Daily Mail,

“This is not an easy book. It is a story about coming of age, brutally, into a changing world. It is a story about putting aside childish beliefs and certainties. It is a story of acceptance – self-acceptance most of all.”

Harris is right that it’s almost impossible to read the book without thinking about To Kill A Mockingbird, or indeed comparing it with the original.

At the same time few writers manage to write a single masterpiece during their lifetime, nevermind two. So in this respect Go Set A Watchman was always likely to fall short.

The book revolves around Jean Louise Finch, the now-adult Scout, and her return to her native Alabama from New York, where she now lives, to visit her father.

It’s set during the mid-50s, with America having now entered the atomic age. At the same time the Civil Rights movement is growing and with it the simmering tension that coursed through the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Twenty years have elapsed since we last saw the characters and the world has changed – something Jean Louise struggles to come to terms with. “I just don’t like my world being disturbed without warning,” she says at one point.

The people have changed, too. We learn that Atticus has rheumatoid arthritis and we discover, too, that her older brother Jem has tragically died.

While the follow-up lacks some of the subtlety and virtuosity of To Kill A Mockingbird, readers will recognise Lee’s trademark warmth and wit that helped make the original so popular.

Fans will no doubt enjoy spotting some of the characters, such as the snooty Aunt Alexandra and Calpurnia, the family’s housekeeper who has now retired.

The book changes direction after the first hundred pages when Jean Louise discovers a pamphlet called The Black Plague on her father’s desk while she’s tidying some of his papers.

This leads her to a meeting of the local Citizens’ Council, where she observes her father introduce a rabble-rouser to the stage and then sit back and listen silently to his deplorable racist diatribe.

In her eyes these councils were synonymous with the “Invisible Empire”, or Ku Klux Klan, and she then wrestles with the belief that her father is a bigot and begins to question the fabric of everything that she once believed to be right and true, which leads to her confrontation with her father at the end of the book.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee explores the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. It’s something she delves into again here and if To Kill A Mockingbird is a romanticised version of the past, then Go Set A Watchman is perhaps a more grown-up version.

Recent events in the United States, such as the controversial removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds – the flag was heavily associated with the man accused of killing nine black churchgoers last month – highlight the fact that racial tension has far from disappeared.

Go Set A Watchman is a brave book that doesn’t always succeed in its endeavours, and there are some fans who may well wish it hadn’t been published. It certainly changes our relationship with its predecessor, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s perhaps too easy for fictional characters to simply reflect who we would like ourselves to be, rather than who we are. In Go Set A Watchman, Lee shows us what it is to be human, with all its frailties and contradictions.

Go Set A Watchman, published by William Heinemann, is out now priced £18.99.