ALERT: CONTAINS SPOILERS
The first chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman shows protagonist Jean Louise “Scout” Finch rejecting a marriage proposal and dealing with her father Atticus’ old age and illness, and also reveals the death of a major character from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Released today by the Guardian in the UK and the Wall Street Journal in the US, the first chapter of the book begins with Jean Louise, now no longer going by her nickname Scout, on a train returning home to Maycomb, where her father still lives.
A tomboy in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise has “turned from an overalled, fractious, gun-slinging creature into a reasonable facsimile of a human being”.
She still “moved like a 13-year-old boy and abjured most feminine adornment”. However, she was “easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person”.
The chapter reveals that Atticus is now 72, and still working, alongside a new character - 30-year-old Henry Clinton, Jean Louise’s love interest and a childhood friend of her brother Jem’s.
And the first chapter also reveals the shocking news that Jem has died. No details are given, except to say that he “dropped dead in his tracks one day”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, Guardian Books editor Claire Armitstead said it was “difficult” to say at this stage whether Go Set a Watchman was as good as To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s absolutely recognisably Scout’s voice,” she said. “She’s sassy, love is not going to go smoothly, let me tell you now.
“There are clues about her romanticism of race. There are tricky issues here and we have to read it very much as a period piece.”
She added: “But what I do think it sets up is lots of fascinating scenarios. The childhood friendships have gone... Obviously Scout has a romantic association with the Black community which I suspect is going to…really develop. It has also got a nice line in irony. It has this line: ‘Recorded history’s version does not coincide with the truth, but these are the facts, because every Maycombian knows them.’
“So it is sort of setting up the idea of a reality that doesn’t accord with the facts. And I think it’s actually really promising.”
The Telegraph said it was a “pleasant, if not enormous surprise” that Jean Louise retains aspects of her childhood, specifically still being a bit tomboy-ish.
“Most interesting, however, is her rejection of marriage: partly because she claims she wants to "play until I'm 30", but also because she has a strong moral core - and doesn't want to just marry Henry when she's not truly in love with him,” the newspaper said.
Writing in the New York Times, Alexandra Alter said: “While the novel shares literary DNA with Ms Lee’s famous debut — the same wry humor, biting banter and finely drawn characters flicker throughout — this is clearly a different story.”
She added: “But whether or not it holds up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, “Watchman” will offer readers an unprecedented and unfiltered look into the mind and creative process of one of the country’s most revered and enigmatic authors. The novel, however flawed, promises to shed new light on familiar characters, and to offer a rare look at the unedited prose of a writer who was so rattled by fame and the weight of expectations that, for decades, it seemed all but certain that she would never publish another word.”
But staff at Guardian Australia were more critical. Emily Wilson said on first reading “felt uneven, awkward, too full of exposition”.
“At second reading I thought her relationship with the protagonist sounded... potentially interesting,” she said. “And there’s beauty in the description. So in precis: not sure yet, but promising.”