Book reviews: It's painful to revisit Mockingbird

Harper Lee, writer of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman
Harper Lee, writer of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman


Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, published in hardback by William Heinemann

HOW to approach an author's only other novel, when the first one is a literary icon? And when the details surrounding the book's publication appear murky at best...

To Kill A Mockingbird, which won Harper Lee the Pulitzer Prize, is a near-perfect tale of childhood set in the American Deep South. Go Set A Watchman, published almost exactly 55 years later, was a first draft of Mockingbird, rejected by Lee's editor, which has languished in her archives until its recent 'discovery'. For some, the book should never have been published.

Mockingbird is so beloved in huge part for its depiction of young Jean Louise 'Scout' Finch, as described in the first-person by an adult narrator Scout. In Watchman, we're in the third person, hearing about Scout as a 20-something New Yorker, who's returned to Maycomb, Alabama to see her father Atticus and her sweetheart Hank. And that separation hurts – we don't feel so much for her.

It's impossible to read Watchman, which Lee calls the 'parent' novel to Mockingbird, without continually cross-referencing. Where's Boo Radley, a silent presence throughout Mockingbird? And if Hank's so important now, why didn't he make it into Mockingbird? Scout's brother Jem, who was her constant companion and conscience in the first book, is also absent.

The Finch house, the setting for summer-long flights of imaginative play, has been knocked down and replaced by an ice cream parlour, symbolic because Lee has somehow demolished our halcyon memories of Mockingbird, even though Watchman was written first. And most cruelly, through Scout's discovery of her father as fallible human being, who's not the bastion of moral propriety she or we thought he was. Now in his 70s, he's attending a citizen's council of white folk determined to keep segregation in place.

What we have is a disjointed series of flashbacks to Scout's coming of age, complete with periods and padded bras, culminating in one incredibly long hate-filled rant at Atticus.

The central case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape, which Atticus heroically defended in Mockingbird, is dismissed in just four paragraphs in Watchman, as Scout begins to see the cracks appearing in her idealised image of her father. But we the reader are like Scout and we see Watchman for a poor, cynical shadow of its published predecessor.

Just as Scout revisits Maycomb, to discover all is not as it used to be, it's painful to revisit Mockingbird through its parent novel and realise we too have been naive. But then that may have been Lee's intention all along.

Kate Whiting


Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered The World by Frank McLynn, published in hardback by Bodley Head

THE whole world knows the name Genghis Khan, but for most people that is all they know – historian Frank McLynn digs deep to try and bring the man behind the name to life.

This hefty hardback, covering almost 700 pages, goes to great lengths to show how an illiterate nomad built an empire stretching from Asia to Europe. He spares no detail, with the Mongolian weather and even its flora and fauna examined to help explain how the Mongols became one of the most feared armies the world has ever seen.

McLynn praises his subject's military genius but does not shy away from the horrific death toll that accompanies his rise to power – estimating he was responsible for the deaths of more than 30 million people. Even someone who writes as well as McLynn could not make a mass murderer likeable, but he does make you realise just how remarkable he must have been.

Rob Dex


Crowns And Codebreakers (Marsh Road Mysteries 2) by Elen Caldecott, published in paperback by Bloomsbury Childrens

MYSTERY-loving author Elen Caldecott is back with the second book in her Marsh Road series. Crowns And Codebreakers sees the return of friends Minnie, Andrew, Piotr, Flora and Sylvie in another intriguing adventure.

Minnie's Gran has come all the way from Nigeria to visit. Minnie loves her Gran and is over the moon when she arrives, but then disaster strikes! Gran picks up the wrong suitcase at the airport. The case that she now has is full of a young boy's clothes.

Minnie sees that her Gran is anxious, but then their house is robbed and the only thing taken is the mysterious case. This puts Gran in a very bad way and tears Minnie's family and friends apart. Will Minnie and the gang solve the mystery of who stole the case and why?

This book is perfect for all fans of Enid Blyton, as it is like a modern version of her mystery tales. I did enjoy the story. However the language was quite basic in parts, so maybe not for anyone who likes more descriptive writing.

Noah Sanders (aged 10)