The distinction of the most-awaited and most-hyped novel of 2015 can easily be conferred on Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Born in Monroeville, Alabama, 89-year-old Lee still lives there, blind and deaf and almost oblivious of a world so different from her own cocoon of love, equality, principles, rights and relationships. Beyond her ken, literary circles are buzzing with chatter about the merits and demerits of her writtenfirst but published-second work. Some reviews have even termed it “the publishing event of the decade”, and very aptly so, as after the legendary cult novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman hits the stands after a gap of 55 years.
It is a common saying among book readers that the literary world of English literature is divided in two halves — those who have read Mockingbird and those who haven’t. In the last 55 years, Scout Finch, the juvenile effervescent and Atticus Finch, a civil rights activists and lawyer, and protagonists of the book were perhaps the two most discussed characters of any novel. Clearly, the curiosity surrounding the second book was much anticipated. Lee loyalists were waiting for years to know about the fate of Atticus Finch and Scout, and of the sleepy town Maycomb (Lee’s poeticised version of her home town).
Go Set a Watchman opens in the 1950s with Jean Louise Finch, a grown-up 26-year-old Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York, where she has been living as an independent woman. Jean Louise is there to visit Atticus, now in his seventies and debilitated by arthritis. In the beginning, you get to witness the sheer brilliance of Lee’s writing; however, as you turn the pages, you will find it only in patches.
“The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful. The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gailypainted bell funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.
“She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke… Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who could predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be awaiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation.”
Interestingly, those for whom Atticus Finch was not only a fiction character but a whole worldview, are bound to be disappointed by his volte-face in this book. Atticus of Watchman, is complex, contradictory to the Atticus of Mockingbird, who fights tooth and nail to help acquit a black man accused of raping a white woman. In Watchman, the same Atticus asks his daughter, “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”
Atticus who, all these years, was hailed as a hero, is open to scrutiny in Lee’s new book. As Washington Post puts it: “A significant aspect of this novel is that it asks us to see Atticus now not merely as a hero, a god, but as a fleshand- blood man with shortcomings and moral failing, enabling us to see ourselves for all our complexities and contradictions.”
The real clash of characters and principles between the daughter and the father starts when, after finding a pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” among her father’s papers, Jean Louise follows him to a Citizens’ Council meeting where Atticus listens rather passively to a man who delivers a racist speech. Jean watches this secretly from the balcony and is horrified. In a flashback to her youth, she remembers how her father once defended a one-armed Black man against a rape allegation.
Jean Louise can’t forgive him for what she now sees as a betrayal. “You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible,” she says. A reader could say the same.
The book then puts forth many contradictory arguments, at times bordering on confusion. Clearly, this leaves the readers marooned. And the inevitable comparison to Mockingbird is a distinct disadvantage as it is bound to fall miles short of fans’ expectations.