The news of a new Harper Lee’s novel being published after more than a half a century hiatus surprised, fascinated and alarmed those who read To Kill a Mockingbird, and rightly so. Disquieted by the success of her debut novel, the author repeatedly claimed she wasn’t going to write or publish another novel, ever – and has been upholding this promise for fifty five years. So what’s suddenly made her change her mind?
One of the problems with Go Set a Watchman is that it has a rather dubious pedigree. While being something of a sequel to Kill a Mockingbird (it stars most of its main characters and is set in the same place twenty years later), it presumably was written before Lee’s masterpiece. Editor whom she showed it back in the day refused to publish it but saw potential in the author and suggested that she should write a novel based on the case off-handedly mentioned in Go Set a Watchman. After that the manuscript of the novel was put in a safe deposit box, forgotten, miraculously found in 2014 and published with Harper Lee’s blessing.
There are many questions about the authenticity of these claims. Harper Lee is 89 years old now, recently suffered a stroke and almost completely lost her eyesight and hearing. Her sister Alice said in 2011 that she can’t see or hear and will sign anything given to her by anyone she has trust in. So why was the novel found and published almost immediately after her sister, who was in charge of her affairs previously, died last year?
The novel’s position as a predecessor of To Kill a Mockingbird also raises some questions. It shows many familiar characters but fails to introduce them properly, seemingly depending on the reader’s familiarity with Lee’s other novel, which presumably did not exist at the moment of writing. A lot of drama in Go Set a Watchman is based on incredulity the main character feels discovering that her father, a lawyer who protected an unjustly accused Black man in To Kill a Mockingbird, joined a segregationist organization. But if you‘ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird you have no idea why she is so shocked.
But the novel’s pedigree aside, what can be said about it as such? Nothing much. One thing is for certain – as a literary work, it is a failure. It wasn’t published fifty years ago and wouldn’t have been published now without Harper Lee’s name attached to it. It is not a bad novel, mind you – it has the same nostalgic feel about the lost epoch of American South To Kill a Mockingbird has. There are some very powerful scenes, the language is good; but it doesn’t do or tell anything that wasn’t done or told better in, well, To Kill a Mockingbird.
It doesn’t even matter if Harper Lee agreed to publish or indeed even wrote it; Go Set a Watchman is a passable novel, but a far cry from her other work. Fifty years from now people will still read To Kill a Mockingbird; one cannot be so sure about Go Set a Watchman.