Mockingbird sequel flies off the shelves

Copies of Harper Lee's new novel, Go Set A Watchman, at a bookshop in Georgia.
Copies of Harper Lee's new novel, Go Set A Watchman, at a bookshop in Georgia.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • Bookstores opened at midnight when copies of Harper Lee's eagerly awaited but controversial second novel flew off the shelves more than half a century after the groundbreaking success of To Kill A Mockingbird.

The global rollout of Go Set A Watchman on Tuesday came as Lee's lawyer hinted that the reclusive 89-year-old may have written a third book.

Though revelations in the sequel that Atticus Finch - the lawyer who battles inequality in Mockingbird - is a racist man in old age has put off some readers, the book holds the No. 1 spot on's most popular authors list.

Since it was announced in February, it has become the website's most preordered book of any genre in the past four years. The two million orders on Amazon alone could generate US$30 million (S$41 million) in revenue for News Corp, parent of publisher HarperCollins, said Mr Barry Lucas, an analyst at Gabelli & Co in Rye, New York.

In Britain and Ireland, retailer Waterstones organised midnight openings for fans while Amazon delivered pre-ordered Kindle editions at the stroke of midnight.

Independent chain Foyles also screened the 1962 Oscar-winning adaptation of Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck before opening the tills in central London. Midnight openings were also scheduled in the United States.

In Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where she lives in a nursing home, the small community's only secular bookstore threw a launch party. A crowd cheered when the Ol' Curiosities And Book Shoppe opened at midnight. It is embossing copies of the book so that folks will know it was bought in Lee's hometown, and it has sold 7,000 pre-ordered copies, more than the town's estimated population of 6,300.

On Monday, an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal by Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter sought to quell some of the controversy about how Watchman was discovered - after lying hidden for more than half a century - and hinted that there may also be a third novel.

Carter said experts "directed by Lee" would be authenticating all documents in the writer's safe- deposit box at a bank in Monroeville, including unidentified pages that she found last week.

"Was it an earlier draft of Watchman or of Mockingbird or even as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two?" Carter wondered.

In Watchman, set in the mid- 1950s and which Lee actually wrote before Mockingbird, Scout, now an adult, visits Alabama from New York to see her father as a bigoted attendee of a local Ku Klux Klan meeting. The book finds Finch, now 72 and arthritic, in possession of a racist tract called The Black Plague and sees him scolding Scout, now known as Jean Louise, for her progressive views on equality, according to reviewers.

Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal wrote that for the millions of admirers of Finch in Mockingbird, Lee's new book will be a test of tolerance and forgiveness.

"At the peak of her outrage, Jean Louise tells her father 'You've cheated me in a way that's inexpressible.' I don't doubt that many who read this novel are going to feel the same way," he wrote.

In a scathing review, National Public Radio called it a "troubling confusion of a novel" that reads "much more like a failed sequel".

Others have counselled people to read it as a whole, highlighting its value as a historical document.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Mockingbird sequel flies off the shelves'. Print Edition | Subscribe