April 03, 2020
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This Bird Doesn’t Sing

For me, Jean Louise Finch will remain a promising child who passed away young.

This Bird Doesn’t Sing
Go Set A Watchman
By Nelle Harper Lee
Penguin Random House | Pages: 278 | Rs. 799

Who can imagine Scout Finch grown up? Or Hol­den Caulfield? Or Mowgli or Peter Pan, for that matter? Pan couldn’t grow; Kipling, though he says “Mowgli later grew up and married”, wisely refrained from exploring that territory. Salinger didn’t want to. His good friend Harper Lee created her own seen-through-the-eyes-of-children world within a few years of Holden’s birth. And it would seem to this reviewer, who has read To Kill a Mockingbird at least 20 times, that she should have been  perhaps wise enough to know when she had a good thing going.

Now, after a few months of obfuscation, and charges and counter-charges, we finally have a book centred on a 26-year-old Jean Louise, which is strangely supposed to have been written first, before Mockingbird. Her editor, Tay Hohoff, read it in 1957 and advised her to write about Scout’s childhood instead. Good advice: for the only scenes which bring back the enchantment of Mockingbird are the flashbacks. Scout’s back in Maycomb on a two-week holiday from an unspecified job in New York City—probably advertising. Atticus is 72 and crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Both Jem and Dill are entirely absent, which robs the book of any magic it might have had. Instead, there is a neighbour, Henry Clinton, her lifelong friend, and if he kept on kissing her like that, her husband. He is also Atticus’s junior partner, and what story Watchman possesses is concerned with Scout’s efforts to find out just what her father and swain are up to, going to a meeting in the courthouse, and why they oppose the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), then just beginning to flex its muscles against segregation.

Many are outraged at Atticus turning into a closet racist and going to Klan meetings. But he only wants to know his enemy!

The problem is, the social dynamics that a nine-year-old Scout can understand only by inference and by being a witness—a very important legacy of Mockingbird—have to be spelled out here to the 26-year-old. And since the polemics of race in the 1950s can be dre­ary stuff to us today, so is the book. Many commentators have already expressed outrage at how Lee could make Atticus/Gregory Peck into some sort of closet racist, attending Ku Klux Klan meetings. Let me soothe those unquiet breasts: Atticus does so mer­ely in order to know his enemy. His character here, though, is by no means powerful or inspiring. Scout’s reactions to his treachery are melodrama­tic, and the psychological denouement is unsophisticated.

By the time you finish this book, because the last few pages are nothing but rant and debate, nothing else sticks in your head. The ranters are chiefly Scout and her uncle, the doctor John Hale Finch, who is another of Mockingbird’s endearing characters to have become fossilised here. I can’t, somehow, believe this was written before Mockingbird. Where did Lee suddenly find the freshness, the magic which suffuses that book? I don’t like my world disturbed either. If you haven’t already ordered this book, I suggest you save Rs 700 or so. This book should have found its last resting place in Tay Hohoff’s coffin. For me, Jean Louise Finch will remain a promising child who passed away young, and who resides now, with so many of my heroes, in some literary Valhalla.

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