Saturday, 1 August 2015

To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) Book Review

About 6 or 7 years ago when I was doing my GCSEs I was forced to read this book for my exams. I hated it. I thought it was boring, slow-paced, seemingly written in riddles, big deals were made out of nothing, the writing was too long winded and we all made fun of Tom Robinson behind our teacher's back, pretending to be a T-Rex with shortened arms. About the only quote I took away from the book was "yessum" which we sqwuarked out repeatedly each lesson like stupid parrots.

How I wish I could go back and smack some sense into my fifteen-year-old self. If I'd sat down and properly read the book from start to end I probably would have enjoyed it more. If it hadn't been a forced requirement of English Literature GCSE to read it, I probably would have enjoyed it more. Any book assigned by school, college or university instantly loses its appeal before you even crack the spine. So TKAM was studied but not enjoyed. Read but not understood. Circumstances meant that at the time I couldn't properly appreciate this amazing novel. 

Before I begin, anyone complaining about spoilers, this book is FIFTY FIVE YEARS OLD. And has, like, two movie adaptions. Not my bad.


I opened the book on Wednesday and despite working and you know, life, I closed the finished book on Friday night. For the snatched hours in those two days I was transported into Southern America in the 1930's. I thought it was written then and I couldn't believe that this book was actually written in the 60's. Everything is so vividly written it's impossible not to get sucked immediately into the story. From one of the first pages where "ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum" you can picture everything; the people, the oppressive heat, the buildings, the smell and feel of Maycomb. The novel is written conversationally from Scout as an adult reflecting back on three years of her childhood where she grows to understand morals, injustice, racism, rape, inequality, all of which are subtly and implicitly alluded to for an adult mind to understand through the innocent eyes of an unknowing child. What I thought at fifteen were riddles of irrelevancy I know understand are expertly written passages containing information to be interpreted and picked apart by the reader, to take from it what they will. There are so many times where it is imperative to read between the lines that you become a part of the story and take a viewpoint whether you want to or not.

The characters become real through Harper Lee's story, whether from their opinions, actions or dialogue. The speech is heavily accented with a southern drawl that's comprehensible, endearing and adds to the unavoidable sense that the novel is based on real events. It's hard to explain how well thought-out and intricately planned every aspect of the novel is. 

Scout, the narrator, is a loveable tomboy who defies everyone's Southern way of thinking that she should be more ladylike. She fights, speaks her mind, fiercely defends anyone she loves and because of all that you will for her to stay exactly the way she is.

Her brother Jem is much like a young Atticus, learning who he wants to be and how to achieve it. His moral compass is mostly set well apart from times when his young age holds back his mind from logical adult thinking, as hard as he tries. 

Atticus is by far my favourite character in the novel. He is plain good. Uncorruptable, generous, thoughtful, calm, intelligent, proud, stubborn, a great father, smart, likeable... He is a "goodie" that can be believed in without having to use cliche or stereotypes.

Tom Robinson is a tragically doomed character who makes the fatal error of being too nice, as a black man, to a white woman. His intentions are clearly innocent and the injustice of his death is affecting in a way most characters in books who aren't the main character usually falls flat of.

Calpurnia is like a stand in mother for the children with her tough love. Scout's eventual understanding of her double life is an interesting and complex chapter of the book full of morality, thoughtfulness and the struggles of defining race and the boundaries at the time between black and white people.

Miss Maudie is a mischievous older woman who acts like a kind of grandmother to Scout, guiding her to understand her father and the town. She speaks her mind, like Scout, and her moments of shutting up the gossiping, air-headed women feel like a small victory.

Boo Radley is an enigma throughout most of the novel. He is, in a way, Scout and Jem's obsession but also their guardian angel. He leaves them presents, he cares for them like they were his own children, and crops up at random points throughout the novel to do good deeds for the children. In the end it is for them that he comes out of his reclusive state to save their lives, risking his privacy and going against his natural extreme shyness. He is loveable and flawed, like most characters in the novel.

Atticus not only teaches the children lessons about life, but the reader too. A lot of the lessons are about thoughtfulness, acceptance, patience, and how to be a better person in general. For example he tells Scout, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from is point of view [...] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." I think this is something we could all benefit from if we thought of it more often. 

Of course from the title there is Atticus' immortal words, "Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingird." Obviously after an initial reading we know that the mockingbird is a metaphor for Tom Robinson and later Boo Radley. They are both so purely good. Tom's death is needless and a show of the injustice that was a side effect of racism back then and still today. The novel's themes and probes into racism, equality and closed-mindedness is one that is still highly relevant in modern society. Just think of all the incidents in America with police killing black/white men and the difference in reaction/empathy/justice just because of skin colour.

After Mrs Dubose passes away, Atticus teaches the children about the true meaning of bravery. This also later links to the Tom Robinson court case. He says, "son, I told you that if you hadn't lost your head I'd have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her - I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew." This quote captures so beautifully the different struggles of the characters and how in real life we never really know what problems people have behind closed doors that we might not know about. Harper Lee really knows how to word issues that are normally so hard to define and give meaning to, but she frames the story around the need for compassion and empathy for others. 

All in all this book wonderfully captures the energy and feeling of childhood, surrounding very adult themes and issues. It was enthralling, captivating, beautifully and vividly written, and when the novel ends you feel like you know the characters like real people. Amazing book, now my second favourite ever. I cannot wait to read Go Set a Watchmen and I've heard it complements its predecessor well. 

This book is perfection.