Until last week, the prospect of Harper Lee publishing a new book fifty-five years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ seemed about as likely as Donna Tartt churning out novels at the same pace as Stephen King or E. L. James winning the Man Booker Prize. But this is exactly what was announced by her publishers at HarperCollins last Tuesday.
Few details have been revealed so far other than that the book is about Scout Finch returning to Alabama as an adult twenty years after the events in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but Lee was persuaded by her publishers to focus on Scout’s childhood instead. The original novel was subsequently lost before it was rediscovered last autumn.
The book is therefore pretty unusual in that it’s a sequel which is also a debut novel. It has also been revealed that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was originally meant to be the first part of a trilogy. The second “bridging” novel was apparently never written and ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was intended to conclude the trilogy. Interestingly, there will be no revisions to the rediscovered manuscript.
As well as excitement, there has also been some trepidation. Although the book was apparently lost, the main question is “Why now?” Despite Lee releasing a statement via her lawyer stating she’s “happy as hell” for the book to be published, there are concerns that the eighty-eight year old author is being exploited following the recent death of her sister who handled her affairs. Perhaps the reaction to the book may have been less tentative if it had been published posthumously.
Whether it’s a book, film or TV show, sequels and spin-offs of popular stories and characters are common because they secure a guaranteed audience. From a marketing perspective, they are therefore less risky compared with new, unknown works. Yet follow-ups to popular books have often been approached cautiously with many sequels failing to live up to intolerably high expectations. They might be premised on a good idea but there are fewer surprises and they rarely capture the originality of the first instalment. Other sequels may stray too far away from the first book and alienate the audience. As ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, I think general expectations will be different – it is effectively a debut novel and should probably be read as such rather than as a sequel.
Sequels come in many different forms with varying degrees of success. Some have been written featuring characters created by other authors such as Jean Rhys’ acclaimed ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ which explored the possible fate of Mr Rochester’s first wife from ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë. The forthcoming ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson has been described as an “accompanying novel” to ‘Life After Life’ rather than a sequel and early reaction seems to be positive so far. While ‘The Rosie Effect‘ by Graeme Simsion and ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ by Rachel Joyce were very well-received last year, later novels following the characters of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams or ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott were considerably less popular than the first books. Until this week, I didn’t even know there was a sequel to ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller – it’s called ‘Closing Time’ and was published over thirty years after his bestselling novel.
Harper Lee could publish a book about absolutely anything and thousands would still buy it. But if she had chosen to publish a book unrelated to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ rather than a “lost” sequel, the reaction would certainly have been different. Whether or not it lives up to readers’ expectations, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is sure to be one of the most talked about books of the year. Will you be reading it this summer? Do you have any favourite sequels or prequels?