Friday, 10 July 2015

The Second Coming of Scout

This is it, folks. In 4 days’ time, the new(ish) novel by Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman, will be unleashed upon the world. The biggest release since the last Harry Potter, the novel has been courting controversy since the bombshell announcement was made back in February – questions have been raised over the legitimacy of the release, given Harper Lee’s deteriorated mental state, and the timing of it coming relatively soon after the death of Alice Lee, Lee’s notoriously protective sister. Lee has disputed these claims via representatives and has insisted she has fully approved the release, but still concerns circulate over this. We can argue ‘til the cows come home over whether we should trust Lee’s lawyers and publishers, or whether it’s insulting to assume Harper doesn’t know what’s going on, but the fact remains that this release is one of the biggest curveballs the literary world has seen.

This post isn’t about the question of whether I should read the book or not, though – despite it possibly looking like that was the direction I was taking. Despite some scruples on my own part, I knew from the moment I read the announcement that, come hell or highwater, scruples or no, I would be reading Go Set A Watchman, and I’ve had it on pre-order ever since it became available. Unlike many fans, though, I chose not to re-read To Kill A Mockingbird because I didn’t think I needed to, and because I wanted to approach Go Set A Watchman with fresh eyes, but now I’m starting to wish I had. Not because I think a re-read will enhance my experience of Go Set A Watchman, but because I think this might have been my last chance to read To Kill A Mockingbird as a standalone novel. I don’t know if we’re, as a hive mind, considering Go Set A Watchman as a sequel or not, but there’s no doubt that it will irrevocably change the perspective of what happens in To Kill A Mockingbird: even if the story is completely different, we’ll still have extra knowledge about characters and their fates, and the interpretation of events – things will change, and whilst change can be a good thing, To Kill A Mockingbird is (in my eyes) such a perfect novel that now I’m unsure I even want to revisit Maycomb, Alabama with Scout anymore. It’s a bit like revisiting a favourite childhood haunt: at first you’re excited to return, but then you begin to worry things will have changed too much, and your memories will forever be tainted by what you see now in comparison to what you saw then. Once I crack the spine and read the first line of Go Set A Watchman, To Kill A Mockingbird will cease to have the same meaning as it once did. Characters will become fleshed out by their older counterparts; events of To Kill A Mockingbird may be clarified and lose their innocent tinge; characters may become flawed. Take Atticus, for example: at the beginning of To Kill A Mockingbird, he’s not the best father in his children’s eyes: he can’t play with them because he’s too old; he has an aversion to guns; he’s distant, although friendly (shown in the way the children address him as Atticus – never father, or daddy, or Pa). By the end of the novel, though, we’re all aware that he’s an excellent father and man, a defender of truth and innocence, with more layers and nuances than his children could previously appreciate. What if he’s revealed to be otherwise in Go Set A Watchman? What if his attempts to save Tom Robinson were done more out of loyalty to truth and law, and less to his fellow man? What if Atticus isn’t as honourable as we thought he was?

This is all speculation, of course: Go Set A Watchman may only share characters and their memories To Kill A Mockingbird, and may actually be a more different story than we’ve been led to believe – it’s now common knowledge that Go Set A Watchman was the first novel Lee actually wrote, but she was encouraged to write from a young Scout’s point of view, which turned into To Kill A Mockingbird, so it is reasonable to wonder if Go Set A Watchman will be the same story, but from a different point of view. But just because the two books share characters – who, in turn, have shared experiences – doesn’t mean the content will necessarily rehash the events of To Kill A Mockingbird: doubtless they’ll come up, I’m sure, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be discussed at length. I suppose I’m just resigned now to the fact that – and call me dramatic if you like – from the moment the release of Go Set A Watchman was announced, To Kill A Mockingbird changed. We’re going to meet adult Scout (what if she goes by Jean-Louise now?): we’re going to see an elderly Atticus: we’re revisiting Maycomb, which doubtless means we’ll revisit some events of that fateful summer, even if only in passing mentions. How could the events of Go Set A Watchman not change how we read To Kill A Mockingbird?

I am looking really forward to reading Go Set A Watchman: I’ve always been curious about what happened after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. What kind of woman did Scout turn into, and what kind of man did Jem become? Is Dill is still around? What happened to Boo Radley? Were there any repercussions to the final climax of the novel? Is Go Set A Watchman semi-autobiographical, like To Kill A Mockingbird is? The problem is, now I know that the answers to some (if not all) of these questions are within reach, I’m also aware that this knowledge will alter how I read To Kill A Mockingbird in the future, and after the excitement and anticipation, I’m not quite sure how much I want to know anymore.

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