A darker Mockingbird

Go Set A Watchman is a more overtly political work as a grown-up Scout navigates race politics in the 1960s Deep South

American author Harper Lee (right) speaking to documentary film-maker and author Mary McDonagh Murphy (left) prior to the publication of Go Set A Watchman.
American author Harper Lee (right) speaking to documentary film-maker and author Mary McDonagh Murphy (left) prior to the publication of Go Set A Watchman. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS/MARY MURPHY & CO
Go Set A Watchman.

BOOK REVIEW/Go Set A Watchman

By Harper Lee

William Heinemann/Hardcover/278 pages/$33.56 from Books Kinokuniya/4/5

To Kill A Mockingbird is that rare thing: a novel at once entertaining and wise; its rock-solid message about justice and equality couched with such brilliance, levity and clarity that it charmed children as much as it humbled adults.

Fifty-five years later, it is easy to see why the book has endured. Read aloud, Harper Lee's sentences trip off the tongue like magic: sharp shards of wit, the musicality of Southerners' talk and the Technicolor nostalgia of endless summers in the fictional small town of Maycomb.

Nothing really bad happens in Jem and Scout's childhood, the child protagonists of Lee's 1960 book and we are comforted by the text's recurring pattern of joy, mild terror, rescue and return to order following some pithy summation by their unorthodox lawyer father Atticus Finch and the epiphany it triggers. Those who are looking for these qualities in 89-year-old Lee's alleged sequel (accounts differ on when or how it was written) to her Pulitzer-winning novel - and, until earlier this week, only published one - will be disappointed.

Go Set A Watchman is a different creature entirely: more grown-up, more cynical and more tangled at its heart.

Now 26 and restored to her proper name of Jean Louise Finch, Scout returns to Maycomb for a visit, from her base in New York, only to be confronted by some heartbreaking changes and realisations.

Her brother Jem has already been dead a couple of years and their summertime friend and accomplice Dill long since moved away.

Atticus, at 72, suffers from arthritis that makes it hard for him to do simple things such as clothe and feed himself.

Aunt Alexandra, who now takes care of Atticus, is still corseted and feisty, and still on Jean Louise's case about behaving like a proper lady and a proper Finch, but even her cracks are showing ("Alexandra looked like other people when she cried", observed Jean Louise upon seeing her aunt cry for the first time).

It is testament to Lee's remarkable powers of description in Mockingbird that she has created characters that linger in our minds, so much so that it is a kind of physical ache to find them much diminished.

Only Uncle Jack seems to have come through the years relatively unscathed. The bachelor doctor who spanked Scout for scrapping with an annoying relative in Mockingbird has morphed into an eccentric scholar of Victoriana, who functions as both riddler and decoder, holding forth on Maycomb minor dilemmas, such as the right way to sing hymns in church.

Jean Louise herself has ripened into a particular type: The Angry Young Woman Sorting Out Important Issues.

Influenced by the liberal "Yank" values of New Yorkers, she struggles to fit back into society back home in the American South, with its peculiar manners and separate way of life.

The novel is set during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, as sit-ins, marches and freedom rides replaced litigation as tools to bring about desegregation.

Jean Louise's uncompromising view about equality and voting rights sets her on a collision course with her father and her fiance Hank, even as she naively fails to understand the tribalism that drives a wedge between her and her old nanny Calpurnia.

Watchman is a more overtly political work than Mockingbird, which dates it and also results in some rather long-drawn polemical dialogue that can get wearisome after a while. (It is also less obviously well constructed and - dare I say it? - might have benefited from tighter editing. The more detached third-person narrative is also less engaging than Scout's inimitable first-person voice in Mockingbird.)

At the same time, it attempts to go beyond Mockingbird's feel-good platitudes to engage seriously with finer philosophical points. How do you change someone's mind, if he has believed in something for generations? By haranguing him with reason and logic, or by degrees and through compromise? Does being right make you less of a bigot when you refuse to admit another's point of view?

Spoiler alert: Much has been made by aggrieved fans of Mockingbird about Atticus' altered views in this book ("If you want to hang onto that image of him, give Watchman a miss," someone said on Facebook).

Yet, Watchman is a truer picture of the hobbled mess that is humanity, and certainly a clearer- eyed assessment of the two-steps- forward, one-step-back battle against racism in a world that only recently witnessed a mass shooting in a South Carolina church.

People change and become feeble in the mind. Fathers are fallible and daughters must continue to march to the beat of their own drums. Old, false idols fall and new, better worlds rise.

Scout's disillusionment is also ours, many of us having read Mockingbird as school texts and now revisiting her world more advanced in years, if not intellect.

In 2010, American journalist Allen Barra wrote in The Wall Street Journal a scathing appraisal of Lee's famed work, calling for readers to "stop pretending that is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature". Unlike great novels that possess a controversial quality, a "moral ambiguity" that keeps them from being easily grasped, he argued, there is no ambiguity in Mockingbird: the book "acts as an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious".

Read back to back, Mockingbird and Watchman reinforce and undercut each other. Mockingbird, in a way that vaguely reminds one of William Faulkner's Light In August or even Flannery O'Connor's classic short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find, is committed to finding that glimmer of hope, the sliver of good in people, even as bad things happen all around you in the tough Deep South.

As Atticus puts it at the end of that book: Most people are real nice, when you finally see them. Watchman, in throwing a shadow onto Scout's halcyon days, provides Mockingbird with its ambiguity.

If you like this: Re-read To Kill A Mockingbird (Cornerstone, paperback, $17.95 from Kinokuniya), of course.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'A darker Mockingbird'. Print Edition | Subscribe