Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman back to back this week.

 
Mockingbird was a delight to experience again after all these years. Having discovered, and accepted, that Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel (It’s the first draft of the same novel – a draft that was rejected) I relaxed into Reese Witherspoon’s southern accent and tried to enjoy it for what it was.
 
Watchman is a bit weak on story. I found it preachy and annoying towards the end where the perspicacious author’s voice comes through in a sequence of final speeches. The editor, I imagine, might have said: ‘You have an interesting subject (black man on trial for rape of white girl in 1930s south) but didn’t make enough of it, and an interesting voice (Scout in the flashbacks) and should use those to frame your rewrite.’
 
In order to mould it into her bestselling classic, Harper Lee cut many irrelevant episodes (including Jean Louise’s boring love interest and uninspired coming-of-age anecdotes). She changed the point of view – it was no longer an adult looking back at her childhood, but a story written from the child’s point of view. The new version centred around the court case where Atticus is not an anomaly among white men – he does have a black maid and only takes the case because he is asked to. He fights for Tom Robinson even though he knows he will lose. He may not speak down to black people but he does consider himself as a step above.
 
As a reader it’s a mediocre book.
 
As a writer, it’s fascinating how Harper Lee rewrote and turned it around. It’s interesting that she kept whole chunks of text (that appear almost word for word in both versions), like the history of the feud between two families, or the history of how the town was founded. She had obviously done the research and wanted to keep the words.
 
I found an interesting piece by Brilliant Books here:

“We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man‘, and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero‘. ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait’. ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see “Go Set A Watchman” receive a similar fate.”


In conclusion, I’m not sorry I spent a week in Alabama with Scout/Jean Louise but I do feel that publishing this book was a huge swindle on the part of the publisher. Large profits were made by misleading the public that this was a prequel/sequel. How many of us purchased Mockingbird for the second time too? I couldn’t possibly know what state of mind Harper Lee is currently in, but I know I wouldn’t want any of my early drafts to be released like this.

I’m inclined to agree with Salman Rushdie on this:

Salman Rushdie

@SalmanRushdie

Don’t think I’ll be reading Go Set Your Watch or whatever it’s called. I have unpublished juvenilia too; would cringe if it got published.

 

Review: ‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

Here’s the blurb:

‘In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping this dazzling new city, and their effect on these individual lives.’

Fast-paced, breathtaking

 

I was surprised and delighted by this book. Tash Aw’s writing style is elegant, yet fast-moving and modern. This is a novel that sparkles.
 

Themes

Themes of loneliness, ambition, success and tragedy are threaded through the inter-connecting stories. Most of the characters are struggling to climb to the top of the ladder and struggling to stay there. The author imagines the difficulty of being a woman in modern China as well as the despair of a successful pop star on the way out.

 

Setting

 

From tiny villages in Malaysia to luxury spas in Shanghai, from a dilapidated hotel in Malaysia to the slums in suburban Shanghai, from pineapple stalls near Singapore to lonely hotel rooms in Taiwan, the settings in this novel are exotic and unique. I’d love to visit modern China after reading this. Failing that I would like to read more from this author.
 

Format

I listened to this as an audiobook and felt it was hard to follow at times. As the pace is quite fast, I felt the need to flick back to check which character was which. I would highly recommend this in hard copy/e-book format.

 Biography

Tash Aw is the author of two previous novels, ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’, winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel, and ‘Map of the Invisible World’. He was born in Malaysia and now lives in London.