Book Review

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

an absolute disgrace

I’ve had this for a while, as I was given it as a gift when it was brand new shortly after Lee’s death in 2016 (check date). I didn’t read it then and I probably shouldn’t have read it now. Actually, I’ll go so far as to say that nobody should be reading this book in this way, now or at any other time.

That the writings included here have been packaged in this way, marketed in this way (as a novel!) and sold to the general reader as a big deal says absolutely nothing positive whatsoever about the mainstream publishing industry and, of course, about whoever represented Harper Lee’s estate and signed off on the publication of this unstructured collection of drafts, near-notes, classical-style dialogues and kinda finished short stories.

It is a DISGRACE to publish this book as anything other than a literary nerds-only collection of posthumous writings, and it really needed a sensitively-phrased apology for the now-offensive attitudes towards race it offers up as the opinions of even the most intentionally likeable characters. BECAUSE IN GO SET A WATCHMAN, even the progressive characters are crazy fucking racist. It’s a mess of notes written towards a novel that was, let’s be clear, never finished, that some cynical 1990sy “racism-doesnt-exist-anymore” money-lover cobbled together with as much effort as I put into exercising my body. It’s a fucking shambles. My body and the existence of this book.

Characters are half drawn: the protagonists are theoretically the same family as the family in To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s not really them, because multiple deaths and multiple relocations mean that the family has a different dynamic and different people in it. Obviously, this is because Harper Lee’s literary executor (or Harper Lee herself at some point in later life) has tip exxed and written over other names.

There are digressive flashbacks that add nothing to the novel, present only because they were present in whatever papers Lee left behind. The central plot is ostensibly that Jean Louise Finch (once known as Scout) is visiting Alabama for a few days back from New York, where she now lives. Unless I missed it, what she does there and who she does it with is never mentioned. You don’t live in a city for five years and not have any friends. Even I have some and I avoid people almost as much as I avoid the standard markers of adulthood. This is one of many threads that doesn’t work.

Jean Louise is back in town for a week and realises that her father, her uncle, her old sweetheart who she considers marrying (because there are no good men in New York, ammaright?) are all racists. She freaks out, confronts them and then they convince her that she’s the bigot for not listening to their opinions about the problems of “mongrelizing the race” etc.. The conclusion of the narrative seems to be that “it doesn’t matter if middle class white people disagree on how we can make life better for black people, just as long as we all agree that the responsibility to do so rests with us, because we are inherently superior.”

Yes, the “novel” is allowed to conclude with this hyper fucking racist conclusion, and it is sold with no warnings about its content. This lack of a warning, even more than the novel itself, is what deserves censure.

If this crass novel – which describes not being racist as being “colourblind” and narratively treats this as a genuine social weakness – was one misstep in the career of a writer who published a novel a year for 50 years, then no one would be reading it now except for people who publish listicles about the most racist passages from the works of famous writers. You can’t fucking cure racism by debating racists, and if the publishers of this think that publishing abandoned notes by a dead novel that directly and emphatically argues just this, then it paints a sorry fucking picture indeed.

The texts here, though enjoyable in places, should only really be read by people who are writing (or fact-checking) a biography of Harper Lee, or people who areacademically studying her work.

Still, well, I’ve read it now so don’t have to feel the unread anxiety about one more hardback book on my shelf.

Fucking avoid, tbh. A disgrace.


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