‘Go Set a Watchman’ receives mixed reviews

Several reviewers find fault with new book on artistic grounds, deem it ‘distressing’ and ‘clunky’

Reuters July 15, 2015
A customer reads a copy of Watchman after purchasing it at a Barnes & Noble store in New York. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK: Bookstores opened early across the United States on Tuesday as Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, went on sale to mixed reviews and widespread disillusion over the depiction of heroic lawyer Atticus Finch as a 1950s racist. In Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, one of the author’s old friends reported the writer was delighted with the response to her only published novel since her 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

“She looked at the stack of reviews and her reaction was delight,” professor Wayne Flynt told reporters on Tuesday. He said he paid a visit to Lee, who has failing eyesight and vision, on Monday evening as hundreds of townsfolk lined up to buy the book at midnight. “She loves the spectacle of this, everyone in town. I summarised the reviews, but I’ll go back tonight and read them to her. She’s processing this all in good humour. I think the world takes her more seriously than she takes herself,” Flynt said.

Although widely billed as a sequel to Lee’s tale of racism and injustice in the American South, Watchman was written before Mockingbird but is set 20 years after the events of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Lee, now 89, was advised by her editor in the 1950s to recast Watchman, which features a grown-up Scout Finch and her aging father, Atticus Finch, and tell the story from a child’s point of view. That reworking became Mockingbird.

Watchman’s portrayal of the older Finch as a man, who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and opposes racial desegregation, has already grabbed headlines because of the stark contrast to the noble lawyer in Mockingbird, who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The character was immortalised in Gregory Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance in the 1962 film version.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks described Watchman as “a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”

In New York, stacks of Watchman greeted book buyers at the Barnes & Noble store on Fifth Avenue. “It sort of feels like a historic literary moment,” said Addy Baird, 19, who left work to trek to the store in the rain. Baird said she was still attached to the Mockingbird characters and worried she might be disappointed in their new story. “I’ve always said, if I have kids, I’d want to name one of my kids Atticus,” Baird said. “But I have to read it before I make any decisions.”

Several reviewers found fault with the new book on artistic grounds. David L Ulin of the Los Angeles Times called it “an apprentice effort [that] falls apart in the second half.” Julia Teller at the Chicago Tribune said it was “almost unbearably clunky” in parts. National Public Radio’s Maureen Corrigan called it “a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically.” The book is “kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece,” Corrigan said.

Not all the reviews were negative. While criticising parts of the book, Teller said Watchman was memorable for its “sophisticated and even prescient view of the long march for racial justice.” It was too early on Tuesday to measure any possible fallout on sales. Publishers Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, has ordered an initial US print run of two million and Watchman has been the best-selling book on Amazon.com in pre-orders for more than a week. 

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th,  2015.

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