Saturday 22 October 2016

Critics divided by revelation of Atticus Finch's racism


Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman has been met with a mixed reception from literature critics.

One reviewer hailed the US author's sequel to classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird as "thought provoking" even as another branded it a "bad book". Writing in the Irish Independent Arifa Akbar said it was "not a finely written story - this reads as a 'good' first draft that Lee has refused to rework".

The source of the disagreement centres on the revelation that one of the story's central characters, lawyer Atticus Finch, is painted as a racist "bigot" who went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting.

Akbar found it to be "a book of enormous literary interest and questionable literary merit".

Gaby Wood, writing in the Telegraph, gave the book - written in 1957 and only unearthed last year - two out of five.

She said that unlike the "virtuosic" narrator of her first novel, Go Set A Watchman suffers because it is written in the third person.


"There are some phrases in Go Set A Watchman that seem markedly Lee's, but she has not learned how to hide what she knows, and the book is weighed down with literary references," she said.

"There is none of that skill here, and it leads you to think about the notion of distance. Not just the distance in time between writing and publication, but between novelist and subject."

In revealing Atticus' prejudices now Harper Lee "has merely demolished a fiction", she said.

But she added: "If she'd published it then, she might have prolonged that era's most intolerable facts."

Robbie Millen, literary editor of the Times, suggested the work was "surprisingly provocative".

"Go Set A Watchman is not as polished nor as sharply written as its sister novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Nor is it as uplifting, moving or funny. It is, however, more edgy and thought provoking," he said.

"Despite the occasionally heavy-handed dialogue and a couple of dramatic encounters that fall flat, there is still much to recommend it. Eccentric characters are brightly drawn.

"There is Lee's trademark warmth, some droll lines and the sense of place and time is strong.

"It's possible that Watchman, while not conceding any ground to racial prejudice, was a riposte, an attempt to explain what made Southerners tick to a hostile, dismissive audience. It's a surprisingly provocative message - don't dismiss the prejudice of others, try to understand them."

Chocolat author Joanne Harris argued in the Daily Mail that the new book had "much in common" with the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, although the portrayal of Atticus was a "shattering blow" for fans.

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