“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious”
Author: Harper Lee
As I looked to pick my second book for 2016 I began to realise that, as appropriate as it seems, January might not have been the best choice of month for “published in 2015”. I have been asking my girlfriend to choose which books I read so far this year, and from a pool already reduced to three she selected Go Set a Watchman, the surprise sequel(ish) to 1960’s classic (in the truest sense of the word) To Kill a Mockingbird. (Readers may note that Watchman was originally finished in 1957 but fortunately my category is “published” and not “written” in 2015!) This was obviously a book near the top of many 2015 lists and in fact probably the most talked-about book of the year. I approached it with mixed feelings – surely it would never live up to the hype?
In 1950-something, Jean Louise Finch returns by train from New York (where she lives without making clear what she does) to her (fictional) hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. She is met at the station by “childhood sweetheart” Hank Clinton in lieu of her father, her usual chauffeur, who is growing arthritic in his old age and often unfit to drive. It soon becomes clear that Maycomb and Jean Louise are not totally suited to each other; things take a turn for the worse when Jean Louise finds out something about her father that shatters her opinion of the man who had been her moral and intellectual beacon since her earliest years. Between flashbacks from her childhood, Jean Louise picks up the pieces and tries to come to terms with developments she could never have imagined.
Now I’ve only read To Kill a Mockingbird once, and that was in 2011. So while I do remember thoroughly enjoying it I don’t really recall the finer points of the plot or even too much of the style and as such I can’t make any great comparisons here. In truth it’s probably not fair to compare anything to one of the best books I’ve ever read – I should consider Go Set a Watchman on its own merits. But that’s incredibly difficult when the latter is essentially an early draft of the former and such juxtaposition is thus inevitable. To be perfectly honest, I’m willing to forgive the shortcomings of a book that was shelved and forgotten about in favour of what the author herself considered to be a better story, and would probably never have been rushed to print without the hype around what had previously been Harper Lee’s single published novel.
So anyway, Go Set a Watchman was decent without being fantastic. It’s pretty slow to get going – it’s not until about a hundred pages into a 278-page novel that anything really happens. And a particular passage later on between Jean Louise and her uncle Jack is so unnecessarily confusing and convoluted that I abandoned it having read it three times without really deciphering what it was on about. The plot is interesting enough but the writing seems a bit bland. It’s a delicate line to tread – if you want to see how your favourite characters from Mockingbird develop as they age (although, again, this was written first) then read on. But if you want to preserve your memory of a perfect book and its pristine characters, it might be best to avoid. Your call.
My Rating: 6.5/10