Go Set A Watchman

Harper Lee’s long-awaited second novel hit the shelves this July – and it was a literary event like no other. It had been more than fifty years since the publication of the seminal To Kill A Mockingbird, and the hype surrounding Go Set A Watchman certainly felt the burden of this time lapse. Was it worth the wait? Annette Ong reviews the book of the summer for Soapbox.

“You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings – I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us” – Uncle Jack.

Published decades after To Kill a Mockingbird, reclusive author Lee has released her second novel Go Set A Watchman to much fanfare. The questions circulating the literary community, amongst fans and publishers alike, are: Is it any good? How does it rate in comparison to Mockingbird? Was it worth publishing at this late stage?

To tell the truth, I’m not entirely sure. I’m still in two minds. It’s a good read and there is all the evidence of Lee’s trademark wit and intelligence, but does it add anything to the legacy of Mockingbird? Did we “need” this book? I’ll let you decide.

(For those of you who are yet to read it: this review contains spoilers).

Go Set a Watchman is the sequel to Lee’s magnum opus To Kill a Mockingbird. Set 20 years later, it follows a 26-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, on a holiday back to Maycomb County. Scout has been living independently in New York and is courting her father’s protégé, Henry Clinton. Atticus Finch has arthritis and is being cared for by his sister, Alexandra. Jem, Scout’s beloved brother, has passed away and her childhood friend, Dill, has moved, having never returned after the war. An aged Calpurnia is being cared for by her family.

Scout discovers there have been significant changes in town since she’s been away. Sadly, she finds both her father and Henry are on the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council; in fact, Atticus is on the board of directors and Henry is a fervent member. Her suspicions as to what goes on at these council meetings is first aroused when she finds a racist pamphlet in the family home.

The biggest revelation and perhaps the most unsettling, is that Atticus Finch is a bigot (please say it isn’t so!) Or is he just a product of his time? Or is he infiltrating the enemy camp so he can take them down from the inside? This new information throws Scout into a deep moral turmoil – one which her Uncle Jack helps her to navigate.

Scout is devastated by the fact that she suddenly doesn’t really know her father. Atticus Finch, a highly respected paragon of virtue and decency to her, is perhaps not as progressive and accepting as she once believed. Scout is not “colour blind” as the novel suggests; she sees colour but it doesn’t matter to her and she cannot fathom anyone thinking otherwise.

The novel deviates from the present day to Scout’s memories, but, although entertaining, doesn’t reveal anything new. There are many flashbacks to happier times that don’t really add anything substantial to the plot. However, it is pleasant to revisit old characters again.

Go Set a Watchman will always be preceded by the reputation of Mockingbird. There is no comparison between the two and it is certainly not a blight on Mockingbird at all, though I feel it will leave fans divided as to its relevancy for a long time.


To Kill a Mockingbird

In anticipation of the excitement coming this August, Annette Ong reviews To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee!

“First of all, if you can learn a simple trick Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view; until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch

Finally I have reached a goal I’ve had for ages: to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Over time, too many people to count have pleaded with me to read the book but, for one reason or another, I’ve always put it off. Now having read it, I can clearly see what all the fuss is about. It is deserving of its Pulitzer Prize and countless literary accolades.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a Southern Gothic, coming-of-age tale by author Harper Lee. It tells the story of Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in Maycomb County, Alabama. Scout and her older brother Jem live with their lawyer father, Atticus Finch. Their mother died early and they are cared for by Atticus and their housemaid Calpurnia. Together, Scout and Jem are joined by Dill, their friend who visits on school holidays; all three get up to all sorts of shenanigans while trying to stave off boredom. The novel is told from Scout’s point of view and offers a combined narrative of her experience; it floats seamlessly between the adult Scout’s memories and the direct experiences of the child Scout.

Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer with a heart. He is defending Tom Robinson; a black man who is charged for committing a crime against a white woman; a crime he did not commit. Most folks in Maycomb County believe this to be an open and shut case; the colour of Robinson’s skin proving his guilt even before the case has gone to trial. Atticus believes in equality, fairness and justice; he does not bow to racial prejudices and refuses to live his life like many in his County. Consequently, he instils these ideals in his children Scout and Jem, who in turn, are incensed by the inequality they witness. Through Atticus they learn compassion, courage and strength.

The novel is autobiographical and based on events in Lee’s childhood. Her father was a lawyer and a similar case was brought before the courts while she was growing up. The character of Dill is loosely based on her close friend and fellow writer, Truman Capote. Growing up together, Capote would spend holidays with Lee consolidating a long-term friendship. While a law student, Lee wrote for literary magazines, however Mockingbird was to be her only published novel; until now, that is.

Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Mockingbird, is due for release in August 2015. The buzz surrounding the publication of Lee’s second novel (sixty years after her first) has generated intrigue and skepticism amongst her critics and fans. Lee is close to ninety years old and lives in an assisted living facility. There were fears the author was being manipulated into publishing the novel; however, the author herself put these fears to bed in a few private interviews held with those concerned. Those who were fortunate enough to meet with the reclusive author report she is clearly aware of what she is doing. Perhaps this is an indication of how important and influential Mockingbird has become; it is entrenched in the national American psyche as one of their greatest works of literature, how could a sequel possibly compare? Only time will tell.

If the quality of storytelling evident in To Kill a Mockingbird is proof of anything, I suspect Lee will have another bestseller on her hands.

Dualism in literature series: Jekyll & Hyde

In the fourth and last of our “Dualism in literature” series, Annette Ong reviews Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Published in 1886, the novella remains one of the eminent works of the gothic genre.

“I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures… even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”

We’ve all heard of someone described as having “a Jekyll and Hyde” character, changing at a whim; having, what is commonly referred to as, a “split personality.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has made a profound impact, not only on literature but also psychology.

The story, set in Victorian England, tells the troubles of Dr. Henry Jekyll – a well-respected doctor with friends in high places. One night, he decides to experiment with some life-altering drugs. The serious side effect is his transformation, both physically and mentally, into Mr. Edward Hyde – a fiendish man with an unquenchable desire to satisfy his baser instincts.

The story is narrated through lawyer Mr. Utterson, Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Enfield, who are all old associates of Jekyll who become entwined in his sorry story. They witness the extreme changes in Jekyll and worry for his state of mind. Their suspicions centre on Hyde, and they believe he is the instigator of their friend’s troubles. They are unaware that Hyde and Jekyll are one and the same being.

As the story progresses, Jekyll becomes accustomed to transforming into Hyde, so much so that the temptation to morph into his alter-ego becomes overwhelming and he cannot resist. Once an upstanding citizen, Jekyll becomes a harried shadow of himself. He is paranoid, anxious, exhausted and fearful. Hyde, on the other hand, revels in his own despicable behavior, using violence to satiate his evil desires. He rails with impatience and anger at Jekyll’s “humanity” and reasoning, seeing it as weak and futile.

Dualism in human nature has never been so perfectly illustrated as in Jekyll and Hyde. The pressure on Victorian society to “act” in a certain way left many feeling caged and repressed. Jekyll personifies frustration, whereas Hyde personifies liberation. However, Hyde’s freedom comes at a cost. Jekyll’s turmoil is the pull between good and evil. He must crush Hyde if he is to remain a respectable member of society. Jekyll’s dilemma raises the question of which nature to nurture and the consequences of this. Similar in theme to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is also a reflection of the battle between science and Christian morality.

The belief that a person’s physical features express their inner character is highlighted in Hyde’s “deformed” image. He is described as “downright detestable” and “displeasing”, and is hated at first sight. Jekyll, on the other hand, is “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty… with every mark of capacity and kindness.” Supposedly, dual natures have dual appearances as well.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic for more reasons than one: it has superb writing, thought-provoking themes and complex characters. It is the perfect exploration of the duality of human nature and the challenges and conflicts it presents.

Dualism in literature series: Coraline

In the third of our “Dualism in literature” series, Annette Ong reviews Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Published in 2002, the horror/fantasy novella was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 2009.

Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you? I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does… what fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”

Neil Gaiman called his novel “Coraline” after repeatedly making a typing error, having meant to write “Caroline”. After this continued to happen, he developed this mysterious character and her story slowly emerged. There’s something to be said for the existence of a gift within an error – a dual world, where something first viewed as a mistake is able to produce something good, worthwhile, perhaps better.

Coraline is a modern fairytale, starting on a gloomy winter’s day that sees the protagonist stuck at home and incredibly bored. She decides to explore the house, eventually finding a dead door in the hallway that, as far as she has always known, leads to nowhere. It turns out, however, to be a magical portal into another world, a world that is the opposite of Coraline’s safe, real existence. The other world has talking animals. Coraline’s spinster neighbours, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible are also there, as well as the crazy old man from upstairs and her “other” parents.

Initially, Coraline thinks this ulterior world is charmed and marvellous. It’s certainly much better than the real world, where there’s little to do and her parents are too busy with work to bother with her. Beyond the door, in contrast, Coraline’s “other” mother and father are very attentive to her needs. There’s also the best roast chicken and vegetables for lunch and her bedroom is full of remarkable toys she’s never seen before. However, the more time she spends there, Coraline develops a sense that something sinister and untoward is lurking beneath the veneer. And on returning to normality, she discovers her real parents have gone missing.

Coraline’s “other” mother and father begin to insist she become their daughter. It seems they have little intention of ever letting her go. Suddenly, the ordinary and mundane life Coraline previously despised becomes the life she desires. The moral at the story’s heart is a classic case of “the grass is always greener”;  of getting what we want and then realising it’s not what we thought it would be. Idealising a situation can be detrimental to the real one under your nose.

Gaiman is renowned for the magical element within his novels, and Coraline is no exception. The story is inhabited by talking animals, her “other” parents’ have buttons for eyes and there’s an enchanted stone – one that allows her to see through the illusion and, eventually, free herself.

Coraline is a wonderful story and a beautifully written novel, guaranteed to bring the reader on a fantastic journey into a slightly scary world. Not just for children, it’s a great read for those who enjoy books similar to the Narnia chronicles and Alice in Wonderland.

Dualism in literature series: Dracula

In the second of our “Dualism in literature” series, Annette Ong turns to Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Published in 1897, the novel is today renowned as one of the seminal works of the Gothic horror genre – perfect for dipping into in this autumnal, dark-night period between Halloween and Bonfire Night.

The Count turned and said in a soft whisper, “Yes, I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past.”

Irish author Bram Stoker spent several years researching European folklore for his novel Dracula. Inspired by trips to Whitby, Stoker began piecing together the story of his protagonist Count. It is an epistolary novel – a collection of fictional accounts, news reports, letters, journal entries and ship logs. Perhaps it was Stoker’s experience of working for a newspaper that influenced the method he adopted for telling his gruesome tale.

Dracula is a classic Victorian gothic novel. Scholars spend years researching and dissecting the work as it is a treasure trove of themes – not to mention the evocative writing. No glittering skin, brooding good looks or perfectly coiffed hair here. It’s all blood, horror and evil, or is it? The Victorian preoccupation with the belief that a life of vice (or virtue) will leave an indelible print on a person’s physiognomy strikes at the heart of dualism. Man’s inner world is at the mercy of two dueling natures: good and evil. The outer world exists in contrasts, as in fact most things do, which leads to eternal conflict.

The novel begins as young lawyer Jonathan Harker embarks on a journey to Dracula’s castle to discuss an acquisition of property. The Count wants a home in London, so he can travel freely, acquiring “followers” as he goes. He holds Harker captive for longer than necessary. Harker is engaged to the beautiful, virtuous Mina, and when he finally escapes the castle, he is a changed man.

There are a few nods to popular myths: that vampires don’t care for garlic, crucifixes or sunlight. They do not eat, sleep all day in coffins of cold earth and only a stake through the heart will finish them off for good. Dracula is also a shape-shifter; morphing from man to wolf to bat, whenever he feels the need.

Mina’s best friend Lucy Westenra becomes one of Dracula’s victims, leaving her fiancé Arthur Holmwood to call on the knowledge and expertise of his closest friends (who also happen to be Lucy’s ex-lovers): psychologist Dr. John Seward, American Quincey Morris and none other than Dutch doctor Van Helsing. And so, the hunt for the immortal one begins. A series of experiments and discoveries, including the Count’s seduction of Mina Harker, leads the men into a perplexing “cat and mouse” chase fearing for their lives and their loved ones.

Van Helsing points out that Dracula was once a noble, well-respected Statesman, who did much for his country and colleagues. He was not always damned. Dual natures exist even in those now known as evil and beyond redemption.

In all, Dracula is the king of gothic novels. A real standout, it comprises superb writing and an endlessly fascinating story. The novel invites us to acknowledge that there are things that exist well beyond the perimeters of reality.

Dualism in literature series: Frankenstein

Opposing forces abound in human nature; they conflict and compete for supremacy. Binaries such as good and evil, pleasure and pain, love and hate, success and failure, are common agents of dualism used by authors to highlight relevant social, cultural and political issues.

With this in mind, the next series of book reviews by Annette Ong will focus on the theme of dualism in literature, the first of which is perhaps the most famous of all dualist novels, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

“I am thy creature. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.”

I find it astounding that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just nineteen years old. There is no doubt the novel is a work of literary excellence. It is wonderfully written and well-deserving of all accolades. Unfortunately for Shelley, her career was overshadowed by her illustrious poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom many at the time regarded as the true author of Frankenstein – a telling reflection, perhaps, of the nineteenth century attitude towards women writers. Nonetheless, Mary Shelley’s novel is a masterpiece and set an impossibly high benchmark for gothic fiction.

The novel chronicles the woeful tale of Victor Frankenstein; a young, curious, ambitious and intelligent man on the cusp of great things. Beginning university to study science, he embarks on a journey of discovery that will ultimately lead to his ruin.

Victor’s creation becomes a diabolical monster: manipulative, evil and physically abhorrent. Simply referred to in the novel as “the fiend” or “the being”, he is cast from his master’s lab almost immediately after he was made, and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving world. He learns to speak and read from observing others. Living a lonely life; he exists on the margins, unseen by humans. Without sacrificing too much of the plot, “the fiend” embarks on a destructive course of evil brought on by harsh ostracism from those whom he desired as companions. Craving acceptance and love, he is denied at every turn. Victor, his creator, whom he refers to as his “master”, experiences the horror of his wrath as he exacts vengeance on Victor’s family and friends.

Shelley’s novel focuses on the dangers of opposing forces and the possible destructive consequences. Frankenstein’s monster is the result of specialised scientific discovery. By combining his knowledge and fervent ambition, Victor is powerful enough to give life. His experiment backfires and haunts him for the rest of his days. There is no comfort for Victor; he is crushed by the weight of guilt and remorse. His personal story comments on the greatness of science versus Christian morality. It begs the question, in the name of science, how far is too far? What are the consequences of playing God?

In “the fiend”, we see the conflict between good and evil. He imagined himself lovable, regardless of his detestable form. Sadly, he was wrong. Judged and excluded, his bitterness grew and violence becomes his way of life. He inflicts pain because he is in pain; however, this was not always the case. He once felt love, generosity and compassion. If he was not initially denied love, there would be no story to tell.

Mary Shelley has written a novel that leaves the reader questioning the capacity for good and evil in human nature. Although goodness reigns triumphant in the end, she allows “evil” a voice, a chance to state its reasons.

The novel is a tale of horror with all the hallmarks of exceptional gothic fiction. It is an intelligent and thought-provoking comment on science, duality, morality and human nature.


COMING OF AGE SERIES: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

In the sixth and last of our ‘Coming of Age’ series, Annette Ong reviews Carol Rifka Brunt’s 2012  novel ‘Tell The Wolves I’m Home’. 

“You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not.”

Published in 2012, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the first novel from American writer Carol Rifka Brunt. Although contemporary, it is set in 1980’s New York and deals with the impact of AIDS at a time when it was a lesser-known illness.

As befits the coming-of-age genre, the novel follows 14-year-old June Elbus as she navigates her way through adolescence and some very adult issues. June is a typical misfit teenager; she’s in love with the medieval period, spends hours traipsing through the woods on her own, has few friends and has difficulty fitting in. She’s also in love with her Uncle Finn.

A renowned artist living in New York City, Finn Weiss lives a truly Bohemian life; he paints, he visits galleries and museums, walking the streets at all hours of the day and night. He’s one of the lucky ones who are able to subsist off their art. June visits him regularly and they go on city adventures together. He is the sole person who can make June feel comfortable about being “different” from others her own age.

June lives with her accountant parents (her mother is Finn’s sister) and Greta, her older sister. The story begins with June, Greta and their mother having to travel to see Finn every weekend as he is painting the girls’ portrait. It is the last painting Finn will ever do before his death; reed-thin, with hollowed eyes and a raspy voice, he is a shadow of his former vibrant self. Finn has AIDS – an illness that the Eighties was unable to deal with, due to a severe lack of medical know-how and general awareness. Rifka Brunt has done an incredible job at dealing with the ill-informed messages that filtered through communities, and brilliantly highlights the pervasive prejudice and fear bred from inadequate knowledge of the disease.

Finn’s death brings June to her knees in grief. Becoming increasingly introverted, she escapes to the woods more often. Her fractured relationship with her sister Greta is also on her mind. She misses Finn and yearns for his company and counsel. Upset and confused, Finn’s death uncovers a past she knew little about, and secrets become exposed upon arrival of a stranger.

Toby, a man June has never met before but remembers seeing at Finn’s funeral, makes contact and requests to see her. Without informing her family, June meets with him and spends subsequent weekends visiting him in the city. Toby (Finn’s long-term partner) strikes up a friendship with June and together they help each other heal with their stories of the man they both dearly loved.

A well-written and beautifully executed tale, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a touching coming-of-age story about painfully discovering the truth and the accompanying freedom that follows.