After capturing the hearts of readers with her landmark debut 1960-masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee returns with her second and highly controversial book after a gap of fifty-five years much to the delight of Mockingbird fans, and the consternation and skepticism of some. If To Kill a Mockingbird was a book about a racially-inflamed rape trial in Alabama narrated by a young girl named Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, then Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second book is much more than that – an agonizingly painful yet tender story of growth and maturing, for good or for bad.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is set twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird and follows a grown-up twenty-six years old Scout as she returns from New York City to her childhood home in Alabama to visit her ailing father, Atticus Finch, who is now seventy-two and suffering from arthritis. Scout, who now prefers her legal name Jean Louise, is deeply pained and hurt by her father Atticus who now holds views diametrically opposite to what he once proudly embraced. She found among his reading materials a racist tract called “The Black Plague.” She is forced to confront him though it did little to change him. Ultimately, the novel is about the later lives of the Finch family, including lawyer Atticus, Scout, and Scout’s older brother Jem who has died of a congenitally disordered heart.
What I really adored about the book is the way in which Harper Lee balances the sense of wistfulness, melancholy and longing that is running throughout the book with the cynical views of Atticus, who as a good-hearted widowed single father was a much-loved figure in To Kill a Mockingbird. The transformation of Atticus is revolting but he has his own reasons. Intermittently, there are flashbacks and references to the past. The most telling effect of the transformation and growth into adulthood of Scout is her preference of her legal name Jean Louise over Scout, the nickname with which she was addressed during her adolescent years. The on and off romance between Scout and a newly introduced character, Henry Clinton, gives the story a fillip and much-needed flavour.
Though some readers may find fault with the third-person narrative which is in stark contrast to the first-person account of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, I feel it syncs well with the tone and tenor of the story. Honestly, I never expected, or for that matter, wanted Go Set a Watchman to be a better book than To Kill a Mockingbird. All I wanted for this book was to showcase the adult life of Scout and Jem, and their father, Atticus. Harper Lee has not only succeeded in that aspect, but delivered an explosive plot twist that no one ever expected. Go Set a Watchman is about a young woman’s disillusionment at the racism that invades her hometown and her family. It is a story about the loss of innocence and the heartbreak at the loss of a brother as much as it is a coming-of-age story. Whatever critics may say and whatever its shortcomings may be, Go Set a Watchman is a worthy follow-up and companion to To Kill a Mockingbird.