This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee (William Heinemann: £18.99; e-book £7.47)

For thus the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman and let him declare what he seeth (Isaiah 21: 6).

As most will know, this is the hugely publicised Harper Lee novel written before the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise Finch, better known to us as Scout, makes her annual trip home from New York to Maycomb, Alabama. The big news is that the Merriwethers have separated after 42 years. Jean Louise’s life is at a crossroads. Should she return to the Old South, marry childhood sweetheart Hank and help father Atticus in his old age? Her decision might have been made had she not spied on the proceedings of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, addressed by Grady O’Hanlon. His harangue – essential inferiority… kinky woolly heads… still in the trees… marry your daughters… mongrelize… mongrelize – is as familiar as it is sickening. The iconoclasm truly begins when Scout notices that the meeting is attended by both Atticus and Hank. Worse still, she finds anti-Negro literature among Atticus’s reading material.

We discover that Atticus’s successful defence of black men charged with serious crimes stems from a love of justice, not from a social conscience. His attempts to justify the status quo are counterpointed by the quirky philosophical conversations of Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother. Scout is further shocked by the changed views towards her of Calpurnia, the negro family cook and her surrogate mother: however, a coffee morning forces her to realise how far removed she is from her blinkered contemporaries, and also how far she is from what she had thought her family values to be. Blind, that’s what I am. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I only looked in their faces. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.

What the biblical watchman reported was that within a year, according to the years of a hireling, all the glory of Kédär shall fail. This book is a metaphor for the death of the Old South. It was finished in 1957. I suspect the America of 1957 would not have been ready for it, hence it remaining unpublished until now. Those of us, especially in our profession, for whom Atticus Finch has stood as a hero, will probably feel the shockwaves more than those who were the targets for the initial onslaught. It would be easy enough to pick faults, as one can with any first novel. It is 60 years old, but it is powerful, stylish and written with great skill. Whatever one’s personal regrets on any part of this novel’s subject matter, the greatest must be that the world saw so little of Harper Lee’s prodigious talent.

The Body Snatcher

Patrícia Melo, translated by Clifford E Landers (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £8.39)

The story goes something like this. Man goes fishing. Plane crashes into river beside him, as happens. Pilot is killed. Man takes pilot’s things which contain something of value. Trying to deal with said thing of value becomes convoluted, and ends badly. Man is in urgent need of money. Man gets job with family of missing man, whose body has disappeared. Man conceives cunning plan to make money from said family involving said missing body. A few twists and turns along the (not terribly inspiring or interesting) way. That’s it. Not up to the usual Bitter Lemon standard.

In Montmartre – Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910

Sue Roe (Penguin: £10; e-book £7.83)

This book is quite simply a superb retelling of the development not only of the artists (principally Picasso and Matisse) and Impressionism, but the central role Paris, in particular Montmartre and the dealers and early purchasers (especially the Stein family), had in this melting point of intellectualism and culture. Whether clutching this book re walking the butte of Montmartre or viewing the collection of Matisse, Monet, Derain or Picasso displayed at Kelvingrove, the book brings it all to life and increases one's understanding. That increased understanding is of the links and influences between and amongst the artists and the influence of those around them. Gertrude Stein and her brothers as early buyers are clearly significant, leading to the Saturday night soirees held in Gertrude's apartment. A readable, highly enjoyable book.


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