Monday, 18 March 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird - M's review


To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird at school when I was sixteen. Like The Beadle, I noted on my Reading list that it was ‘OK’. But, again like The Beadle, I’ve always recalled enjoying them. I could never remember all the details but something about them had played around in my head. Now, I’ve just reread To Kill A Mockingbird for my Classics Club challenge. It’s my second reread for leisure ever (The Beadle was my first!). And I loved it.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
For those readers who are not familiar with To Kill A Mockingbird, it’s a story about the events that led to a thirteen year old boy breaking his elbow. It’s set in a 1930s small town in Alabama, USA. The story is narrated by Scout (aka Jean Louise Finch), who is probably a grown woman when she recounts a story about a time when she was eight years old, living with her brother, Jem, and her father, Atticus, who is a lawyer about to defend a Negro who has been accused of a crime for which the punishment is death. Scout’s story is about growing up, perpetuating social prejudices and standing up to  them too.  She doesn’t hide anything in her story (as least I don’t think she does) but she realises that much was hidden from her.

Racial prejudice is an obvious and substantial theme in the novel and one that I remembered from my earlier reading. What I had forgotten (and possibly not even have understood that brilliantly!) were the other prejudices and social mores that the novel explores, criticises and humours. The children’s tormenting and embellishing stories about reclusive Boo Radley is an obvious one. Disabilities and social class are others. Gender and growing up as a girl in a society that expects you to turn into ‘a lady’ is another one, and as it is Scout who is narrating, this is probably more a central thread of this novel than racial prejudice (but, I also spot gender issues more - remember, this review is my narrative). All of these themes and sub-plots are woven together in a very charming yet slightly shivery way.

The majority of the characters in the novel are very likeable. Very. Apart from the few who are horrid (Atticus definitely loves more people than I do).  Jem is lovely. Scout is adorable and gives voice to frustrations that must plague many girls (and boys too) – like what you should wear, how you should behave, what you can and can’t do – just because you are a girl as opposed to a boy. Within this context, it’s hardly surprising then that rape features. While only lightly explored as an issue, this is not in a dismissive way. While all the characters are reluctant to speak about it, including Atticus, Atticus also makes it clear that it is a crime that concerns him and is bigger than what is being voiced. And Atticus of course, is the novel’s moral compass.

The novel is full of heroes. There’s Scout, in her many flawed guises. There’s the real, heartbreakingly tragic hero who we don’t learn too much about – but we learn enough. And of course, there’s Atticus Finch. Scout’s father embodies the real hero in this novel. He’s almost perfect (in my eyes, maybe he would be if he didn’t side with Aunt Alexandra a little too much: that’s the Scout in me lurching out!) but he’s not Superman. Throughout the novel, more than I’ve pointed out, there are lots of interesting bits that explore the concepts of cowardice and bravery.

While the lighthearted daily fun and games and mishaps that happen to adventurous eight and twelve year olds fill the pages to provide humour, the novel instils a sense of foreboding that traverses many of the sub or parallel plots in the story: what bad thing is going to happen at the Radley place, who’s going to get hurt or killed, will Tom get off, who is to blame? Once you’ve finished the novel, go back and read the first three paragraphs again. Scout and Jem are offering up different explanations and interpretations. Atticus of course, is the judge!

This sense of foreboding is partly heightened by the slow pace of the novel. The focus in this novel is definitely on the characters and themes. There is a lot of plot but it meanders lazily over a couple of summers. The novel is a bit like the hot, sleepy town that is its Maycomb setting.

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those novels that some people would describe as a very quotable novel: Dill’s mixed up comment about joining the circus because people are laughable ; Scout’s view that there is only one type of people: everyone; Atticus on why we shouldn’t kill a mockingbird.

It is also a very sad novel. It passes commentary based on real events where sadness understates how terrible they were and it is also sad when you think about how we make judgements about people and things and act on these. Atticus would say that’s exactly what is wrong with circumstantial evidence.

I can see why it’s studied at school. There is so much packed into this shortish book that you could discuss it forever both as a literary work but especially for the themes that run through it. But, if you’re like me and find that reading a set text at school ruins the pleasure of reading a novel for you, then make sure you read this before it comes up at school – or reread it when you’re older, like I have. To Kill A Mockingbird has not only jumped from OK for me, it’s probably gone to one of my all time favourite novels. I’m a bit sad to have finished it. Harper Lee should have written a sequel.

For any teens who were interested in the death penalty debates raised in Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds, To Kill A Mockingbird will be right up your street.

 
My Classics Club verdict: Not that anyone would believe me if I said otherwise but definitely it’s a classic. Wonderful in so many ways.
 
(Gosh; that was a bit long. It’s so I don’t forget why I liked it so much. Or what things it made play around in my head. For when I’m old and really grey – or just forgetful.)

Publication details: 2004, Vintage, London, paperback (first published 1960)
This copy: my own

5 comments:

  1. I loved your review and even if you thought it a bit long, I didn't. This was one of my favorite books growing up and Atticus Finch was a real hero. The film is great as well.

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    1. Thanks Alex. Good to see I'm not the only Atticus fan. I think Scout's pretty top notch too.

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  2. I know that my mum bought a copy of this the other week and my friend is about to read it so I'll have to butt in and read it first because it sounds like a really good novel. I'll have to add it to my ever-growing TBR pile now! Lovely review! :)

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    1. Gosh, your mum buys good books :)

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  3. I read it for the first time last year and also enjoyed it, a classic that will always pass the test of time.

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