It seems almost superfluous to write a review of this book as so much has already been written about it but here I go anyway.
According to reports this was a novel Harper Lee wrote in the 1950s and couldn’t get published. An editor suggested she set it much earlier in the heroine Scout’s childhood and make more of the courtroom battle of her father Atticus Finch in his bid to acquit a black man of rape of a white woman. The second book became of course To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is therefore a kind of prequel though it does stand alone and can be read without any knowledge of the later book. Supposedly Harper Lee wanted this book to be released as it was, unedited. This has caused some reviewers to refer to it as a rough draft but I don’t feel this at all. It is a completed work though with a completely different tone to To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a period piece and the use of the word negro and the references to poor white people throughout as trash was quite jarring to me. In one phrase Lee refers to “the smell of clean negro”. Some characters use the n-word. However, such dated language is found in many old books and one just has to accept it as part of the time.
The book opens with Scout, now a twenty-six year old woman returning home to Alabama after a stint working in New York. It starts out almost as a love story as she toys with accepting a marriage proposal from a childhood sweetheart. As the book unfolds the plot really turns on her relationship with her father. As a child she worshipped him as a godlike figure but as an adult she becomes aware of his flaws. She becomes horrified to learn that he has racist views like most of his contemporaries. He sees black people like children and doesn’t think they are ready to vote, hold professional positions or run their own affairs. This flawed Atticus has been the subject of much furore in the press.
The book seems then to be a coming of age novel. Scout sees her father as he really is, not as she thought he was as a child and she sees her home town and its inhabitants as they really are, familiar to her and yet also alien. I felt a strong kinship with the main character as anyone will who has left home and then returned to see their roots differently. She fits and yet she doesn’t fit. She is the Watchman of the town, observing it and trying to be its conscience. She is stunned by her father’s racism, his opposition to NAACP, his one time attendance at a Klan meeting. As the book develops she manages to reconcile with her father through the advice of her eccentric uncle.
There is much to enjoy in this book. The atmosphere of the rural South is caught beautifully and the flashbacks to childhood are exquisite. Scout has a carefree rural childhood, barefoot in the dirt, skinny-dipping in the creek, drinking lemonade and ice cream on endless sultry summer afternoons; truly a childhood we wished we had all had but few of us did. I love books set in the Southern states even though I have never been there.
Lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird may not like this book so much. It is not simple, not black and white, not a children’s book. Everyone is flawed just as in life. Everything is shades of grey. Life does not have simple solutions and nobody is coming to save the day at the last moment. These are hard truths which few wish to hear but if you are willing to put the schoolroom edicts behind you this is a very adult, very beautiful book.