Is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman worth reading?



I’ve not experienced anything like it since 50 Shades of Grey.

For the past two weeks, customers have been barrelling through the front door of the bookshop, grabbing one of the bright orange hardbacks from the Number 1 position on our Top Ten, giving it a cursory flick-through and then turning to me and saying:

“So. Is it worth reading?”

The “it” book is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

And, the short answer to this question – which I’m almost getting tired of saying – is:

“If you read and enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird then Yes.”

Now, go away and read the book for yourself … as spoilers are on the horizon …


I was a tad excited to read Go Set a Watchman.

Harper Lee’s first (and only novel for 55 years), To Kill a Mockingbird is my favourite book of all-time. I’d recently re-read it and fell in love with it all over again.

As Watchman was apparently the story of Scout returning to Maycomb as an adult in the 1950s, I couldn’t wait to hear what happened in the lives of Scout, Jem, Dill and Atticus.

And there began the expectations – and one of the many problems of such highly-anticipated new books; in my head, I’d already written Watchman.

So it’s tricky to pull apart the disappointment of hopes-dashed with the value of book in its own right.

According to the publisher, Go Set a Watchman is the first manuscript Harper Lee submitted to her editor in 1957. The editor thought it showed promise and told Lee to go back and re-write from the child Scout’s perspective. The 1930s-set To Kill a Mockingbird was born. Go Set a Watchman was shelved.

Until now. The manuscript was “surprisingly discovered” last year and this first draft (with only a light edit) was released this month amidst much fanfare – and controversy, as there was uncertainty whether the publication had 89-year-old Harper Lee’s blessing.

That’s all PR and rumours out of the way; who knows what the truth is. What we have is a novel with huge expectations placed on it.

Watchman does indeed return to the tiny southern town of Maycomb in the 1950s. Scout is now the 26 year-old Jean Louise, on her annual trip from her home of New York City, visiting her rheumatoid-battling father Atticus. Many characters from Mockingbird return and a few new ones emerge – Jean Louise’s beau (and Atticus’ protégé) Henry plays a major role as does Atticus’ brother, Dr Finch. Dill and Jem are only present in reminiscence (and no I won’t spoil it with why). And, no, there is no Boo Radley.

In Watchman, Lee evokes a time and a place so familiar and yet so foreign. Racism. Sexism. Classism. The bigotry and claustrophia of southern American, small town 1950s life. But really this is a novel about a young woman who learns her father is not the saint she always believed.

Saint Atticus is just … is just … a man. A man who believes that the black man is not the equal of the white man.

So this is the story of disillusionment – an Oedipal tale told through a young woman trying to find her place in the world. And as Jean Louise weighs up whether to stay in Maycomb, look after her father and marry Henry (and not return to the melting pot of New York), all the values she believed her father and the town stand for come crashing down around her.

It’s an insightful exploration of a 1950s woman moral coming of age – and really finding her independence.

(You know the But is coming …)

But, I’m not sure Go Set a Watchman works as a stand-alone novel in 2015. While it’s all fine and good hearing more stories about Scout and Maycomb, I don’t think I’d particularly care about any of them if I hadn’t read Mockingbird.

And, while prejudice and power is still relevant in 2015, Watchman just doesn’t have generalisability – there are great tracts of dialogue presenting the opposing arguments on race and state autonomy circa 1950s. If you live outside the US, you may not even know what NAACP is, let alone its historical relevance or relevance to the story. (Thank goodness we have google.) But, the novel does give insight into the tension and complexity of the issues that lead to one of the greatest social changes in the 20th century.

(Oh and there’s one section near the beginning where Jean Louise is reminiscing about her, Jem and Dill doing Baptist revival re-enactments that I found just … boring … I think its supposed to be endearing but I still don’t know how it’s relevant to the story … You had to be there I suppose …)

Watchman is being referred to as the Mockingbird sequel but after reading, I think it’s more of a companion book. I certainly came away with a deeper insight into the characters and culture of Maycomb County. Also, it seems clear that Watchman was written before Mockingbird as there is reference to the 1930s court case resulting in an acquittal (huh?) – and surely a sequel wouldn’t write the Jem and Dill characters out so quickly … unless there’s a third book?

Anyway, all of these are minor quibbles. I had high hopes but fairly low expectations of Go Set a Watchman. It is no Mockingbird – and it is no masterpiece – but as a trip into the deep South in the mid-20th century, with some much-loved characters, it was an enjoyable read. I may even give it a re-read – in 30 years …