Go Set a Watchman

By Harper Lee

Surely the most anticipated book release of the year, if not the decade, has got to be the original manuscript Harper Lee submitted to her publisher back in 1957, Go Set A Watchman. Set in America in the 1950s, it follows the story of Jean-Louise Finch (Scout) as she returns from New York to her fictional Alabama hometown of Maycomb. The story focuses on the years preceding the civil rights movement, whose goal was to end racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans. It is the original first draft of Lee’s only other published book, Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird, which regularly tops polls among the greatest novels of all time. So how does this book fare in comparison?

I went along to Waterstones’ Go Set A Watchman reading group to gauge the responses of other readers. Although much has been said in the press of Atticus and his now bigoted, racist character, the majority opinion here was that Atticus represented a typical white American and was a product of the times, his ‘good natured’ racism more of ignorance than anything else. In To Kill A Mockingbird, he may have been represented as a strong fighter for civil rights, but it could also be said he was doing his job, and more concerned with justice and making sure the law was abided by. Either way, he is less likeable, but this was necessary for the overall story as Scout (Jean-Louise) finally grows up and accepts the fact her father isn’t perfect, just human.

As a lover of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was an insight to where it all began and fascinating, compelling reading. Editor Tay Hohoff deserves credit for seeing the potential in what is a flawed first draft. Although dealing with serious issues of class and courage, she felt it only contained the dangling threads of a plot. The series of flashbacks to Scout’s childhood in the 1930s is where the novel really shows us the warmth and humour we recognise in To Kill A Mockingbird, and this is what she asked Lee to go back and focus on. One constant is just how radical both books are, with our heroine, Scout, so ahead of her time, a pioneering feminist refusing to submit to the conventions of the era. For this especially, the two novels remain inextricably linked.

YGR Erskine

YGR Erskine writes a blog at mymanchesterdiary.com.

Background image: High Sausage Roller by Vincent James.

Transactions of Desire

Various Authors; edited by Omar Kholeif and Sarah Perks

With links to HOME's inaugural exhibit, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, this collection of short stories explores love and desire – often unrequited. Many of the writers have backgrounds in art and academia, but most fail to deliver something genuinely graceful and are too often too clever for their own good. From the blurb on its back – never before have I read such a pretentious and inaccurate representation of a product’s contents – the book screams, “Look at us, we're so artful. Look at how clever we are.”

There are some genuinely touching pieces in here, with ‘Animals of Rotterdam Zoo’ and ‘1961’ being particular standouts. Both explore conflicting desire, guilt and repressed desire. Other stories seem to finish just as you might be getting invested. Douglas Coupland’s ‘361’ is also a smart and effective science fiction thriller, but seems out of place in this collection, reading like an unmade episode of The Twilight Zone.

The short story is, as a form, now more interested in presenting snapshots, moments of time or flickers of character than fully resolved narratives. Whilst I have no problem with that, here that trend is often frustrating, especially when entries such as Judith Barry's ‘White Nights’ or ‘Desire is Irrelevant’ by Omar Kholeif (also on editing duty here) are so disjointedly written that connections are lost and the narratives too opaque to feel anything about the characters or situations presented. As Andrew Durbin points out in his piece, ‘My Love Don't Cost A Thing’, “It's easy to say nothing”.

Much like the exhibit it’s linked to, it’s difficult to make connections with much of the work here. Ideas are presented possessing an air of profundity, but lack impact and give little insight into the workings of the heart of the mind (beyond, perhaps, that we're all a little dysfunctional).

Sadly, even the pieces that do connect emotionally fail to linger in the memory or the heart for long (although the sentence, “Running from his scrotum up the centre of his arsehole is the most perfect seam,” might take a while to shift). This is a book of missed connections and missed opportunities.

Sean Mason