The conference doesn't start until this afternoon, and I got up early, so I had the chance to read it - it's not a long novel. Overall verdict? As a novel - a debut novel, even, which it would have been had it been published when it was written - , it has both strenghts and weaknesses; you can see both why her editor rejected it in this form and why the editor in question also realised this writer had huge potential and there was something there which deserved, nay, demanded further development. The weaknesses, unspoilery: in the last third of the novel the characters spout rethoric of the day, ideas and exposition at each other, they have a tendency to feel more like Shavian mouthpieces, if that makes sense. Which isn't true for the rest of the novel. The solution to the central emotional conflict also feels - not wrong for the characters, but wrongly reached. (I'll get into details why in the spoilery part of the view.) Especially as this involves a character (not Atticus!) doing lots of mansplaining to our heroine. Oh, and I'm not sure whether this counts as a weakness or not, but the narration pov is a bit inconsistent - ist's mostly Jean Louise's/Scout's in third person, but there are two or three passages where we're suddenly in Henry/Hank Clinton's or Atticus' pov.
The strengths, though: Harper Lee was already a wonderful wordsmith at this stage. And the characters - both the ones who'd make it into To Kill a Mockingbird
and the ones exclusive to this book - are drawn vividly, at once coming to life in a few sentences and staying that way. The flashbacks to Scout's childhood and adolescence feel organically interwoven with what she experiencs in the present. Btw, interestingly enough, only the first of them feels like it could be in To Kill a Mockingbird
(and maybe it is, it's been so many years since I've read the novel - a hilarious Scout-Jem-Dill escapade), whereas the others are in an era Mockingbird
stays away from, after Scout starts to menstruate at age 11 and thus is rudely reminded her body is female, and the effect this has on her. The ignorance about sex at school in the stories the girls there tell each other, coming with a matter of fact aside comment (not related to any of the plot, so I mention it here) by one of her schoolmates about two other girls being taken away by social services because the older one got pregnant by her own father. (Mockingbird
implies that Mayella Ewell got raped by her father, but it's not spelled out explicitly, and I think the movie skips the implication altogether.). Flashback!!Scout in Go Set A Watchman
lives far more acutely aware of being female (and not wanting to be), and what can happen to girls, than the pre-pubescent child in To Kill A Mockingbird
. Present day Jean Louise hasn't resolved all her gender issues but is on somewhat better terms with being a woman, especially since she's seeing men (all but one) with a far more jaundiced eye.
Then there's the build up. I now wish I hadn't read the advance reviews, though then probably I wouldn't read the novel for months, because the big twist/revelation isn't something Lee drops her readers into right at the start. It's very skillfully done. The hypothetical 1950s reader not knowing any of these characters would have taken a great liking to most of them as our heroine returns to the town of her childhood. There are a very few hints of what's to come (far more noticable to a current day reader), but no more than that, though they increase, and by the time Jean Louise finds out what shocks her world to the core, even a hypothetical first time reader with no To Kill a Mockinbird
knowledge whatsoever would have been as shocked as she was, because ( this novel has done spoilery things. )
The immediate emotional fallout for our pov character, the disorientation, the desperate attempt to reconcile the past with the present, all this is captivatingly written. (It's only once we move past the fallout-and-trying-to-find-explanations part that we get to the characters turning into Shavian mouthpieces weakness I mentioned earlier.) Aching, but very well.
Also: the novel doesn't let its heroine off the hook, either. There are two very powerful scenes were Jean Louise, as we'd put it today, is called on her privilege. The first is when she visits Calpurnia (too old now to work for the Finch family, but previously introduced in flashback as a firm and loving presence through Scout's childhood and adolescence) in the wake of the big twist and as part of her quest to try and make sense of it all. And that's when she gets, if possibly, an even bigger shock. ( Spoilery text passage )
That's the end of the scene (Jean Louise is talking to Calpurnia's son in the next line, which opens a new one), and wow. There really is nothing more to be said. And if nothing else, I think it justifies the publication of this novel, because what (few) criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird
I've read usually also concerned the black characters being presented as universally in awe of their white savior.
The other scene I was referring to takes place between Jean Louise and Henry, and Henry is another case in point of this novel answering, unintentionally, to one of directed-at-TKaM few criticisms, this time about the classism in the depiction of "white trash" . Because Henry Clinton comes from a "white trash" family, and Atticus' sister Alexandra has a rant about that to Jean Louise early on ("We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash (...)Henry is like he is now only because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came and paid for his education. Fine a boy as he is, the trash won't wash out of him"
). I hasten to add that Alexandra is presented as a snob and Henry sympathetically at this point; it's this speech which brings a very pissed off Jean Louise nearly to agree to marry him. When, much later in the novel, Jean Louise and Henry finally have their conversation about the big twist, Henry's reply to the obvious question she asks him goes right at the hart of this difference in their origins, and what it means for his day-to-day existence in Maycomb: ( another spoilery text passage )
Neither Jean Louise nor the novel takes this as an excuse for the larger issue, but neither is Henry's point re: the differences in how people react to them denied.
Btw, before I talk about more serious issues and how they're dealt with, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out another strength of the novel: the humour of it. Not just in some of the childhood scenes. An example of the bantery (and unspoilery) dialogue between Jean Louise and her father Atticus early in the novel, before the twist, which refers to something Henry alludes to in the spoilery passage earlier. Aunt Alexandra is just chiding Jean Louise about the rumour Jean Louise and Henry were swimming in the river naked:
"Your father will die, simply die, when he finds out."
Atticus was standing in the door with his hands in his pockets.
"Good morning," he said. "What will kill me?"
Alexandra said, "Im not going to tell him, Jean Louise. It's up to you.
Jean Louise silently signaled her father. Her message was received and understood. Atticus looked grave. "What's the matter?" he said.
"Mary Webster was on the blower. Her advance agents saw Hank and me swimming in the river in the middle of the night with no clothes on."
"H'r'm," said Atticus. He touched his glasses. "I hope you weren't doing the backstroke."
Conversely, here's Jean Louise teasing her father at breakfast re: coffee: 'Still haven't learned how to drink it?'
'No,' said her father.
'Cigarettes and women?'
'You have any fun these days?'
You can see what I mean about the characterisation build up within this novel. As an example of a characterisation of even minor characters in a few lines, here's Dill, the character inspired by Harper Lee's childhood friendship with Truman Capote, who shows up only in flashback in Go Set a Watchman
but is occasionally thought of by Jean Louise in the present, too.
re: Dill the child: He was a short, square-built, cotton-headed individual with the face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat. He was a year older than she, but she was a head taller.
Dill the adult, during the novel's actions abroad (currently in Italy): He was a born wanderer. He was like a small panther when confined with the same people and surroundings for any length of time. She wondered where he would be when his life ended. Not on the sidewalk of Maycomb, that was for sure.
Aunt Alexandra (whom I don't recall from TKaM): Alexandra was the last of her kind; she had river-boat, boarding school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was a disapprover; she was an incurable gossip. When Alexandra went to finishing school, self-doubt could not be found in any text-book (...).
It's this wit and affection for the characters on the narrator's part which makes the twist and theme extra painful. ( Now it gets truly spoilery again. )
Well. No wonder Jean Louise runs around in the later part of the novel inwardly alternately reeling, wondering whether everyone around her went crazy or whether she did, and generally asking WHY?, feeling horribly betrayed and wondering and how both past and present can be true. Unfortunately, the narrative resolution to all of this brings me to the novel's weaknesses again. ( Spoilers abound )
Finally a bit of Mockingbird-related musings: when choosing to shift the story to Scout's childhood and make the trial the big plot, Harper Lee and her editor went for a dramatically more satisfying and far more clear cut tale. However, it also meant a lot of the ambiguity is lost. Go Set a Watchman
doesn't have heroes and villains, per se. I mean, there is the boo-hiss racist O'Hanlon making a speech at the courthouse, but he's barely in the book, just in that one scene, not a character as much as a plot device to galvanize Jean Louise's discovery. Everyone else, including Jean Louise, has prejudices in different degrees (though she thinks she has none) but also good intentions. It doesn't make some of their actions less devastating. I think there is more than one good book hidden in this one. The one we actually got in Mockingbird
, certainly. But I can't help but wondering what would have happened if the editor, instead of advising Harper Lee to go for the childhood scenes, told her to jettison Uncle Jack the Mansplainer, curb the speechifying in the last third of the book and not to stop redrafting until the final two confrontations were the best they can be? US lit is so obsessed with father/son relationships; daughter/father, when not about the father being emotionally withdrawn (this isn't Atticus' problem at all), is still far rarer.
Or: a Calpurnia pov novel. That scene between Jean Louise and Calpurnia in just a short space gives us an impression of Calpurnia seeing her life with the Finch family so radically different from how Scout saw it, without negating Scout's pov, either, and it would have been fascinating to read an entire book of that.
In conclusion: won't become one of my favourite novels, but I'm glad to have read it.