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First chapter of new Harper Lee novel released

Jennie Matthew
Pulitzer Prize winner and "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee on November 5, 2007 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla)

New York (AFP) - Scout is an independent woman living in New York with a childhood friend who wants to marry her back home in Alabama. Her brother is dead and her father, Atticus, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.

These are the tantalizing plot details revealed in the first chapter of Harper Lee's second novel, "Go Set a Watchman," whose release next Tuesday is one of the biggest events in publishing history.

Pre-orders have already made the new novel a best-seller and HarperCollins has reportedly ordered a first printing of two million copies, an astonishing number in an increasingly digital age.

Lee's only previous novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is considered a 20th century masterpiece that defined racial injustice in the Depression-era South and became standard reading in classrooms.

Controversy continues to rage over whether the 89-year-old novelist, who avoids the media and lives as a recluse in an Alabama nursing home, was manipulated into publishing the novel.

"Watchman" lay hidden for years after being written in the 1950s, when an editor told Harper to recast the book from the childhood perspective of Scout, which eventually turned into "Mockingbird."

But the publication on Friday of the first chapter by The Wall Street Journal and Guardian newspapers, and an audio version by Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon, whetted appetites -- and had reviewers both salivating and sharpening their knives.

The book begins with Scout, or Jean Louise Finch, taking the train home to Maycomb County on her fifth annual visit from New York.

As she nears her destination, Scout ruminates on the scenery, the history of Maycomb and her family, all bittersweet when read in 2015 -- more than 60 years after it was originally written.

Much of the chapter is dominated by playful banter between Jean Louise and Henry Clinton, who loves her and wants to marry her. But Jean Louise is less sure. She is "almost in love," the reader is told.

"'Henry', she said primly, 'I'll have an affair with you but I won't marry you.'"

Scout discovers that her 72-year-old father has rheumatoid arthritis, which made him unable to collect her.

- Bombshell -

But the biggest bombshell for fans was that Scout's brother Jem, who played a prominent role in "Mockingbird," had suddenly died.

In a careful first review, The New York Times said the novel "shares literary DNA" with Lee's masterpiece -- "the same wry humor, biting banter and finely drawn characters."

The Guardian described the opening chapter as "gorgeous" and said the intervening decades had "worked a bittersweet magic... it carries us, bewitchingly, deep into the past."

But The Telegraph was biting. The chapter, the British newspaper wrote, had "interest as a work in progress, the first step to a literary masterpiece.

"But perhaps it would have been a greater kindness to Lee's reputation, and to the millions who cherish 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' not to have published it at all," it sneered.

"Mockingbird" won a Pulitzer prize, became standard reading in schools the world over, was translated into more than 40 languages and adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck.

The impending publication of "Watchman" left fans both delighted and taken aback, after the celebrated novelist had for so long said there would never be another novel.

Surprise quickly degenerated into concern that perhaps Lee, who has poor eye sight and is deaf, may not have been of sound mind.

An Alabama government department even opened an investigation into whether Lee had been coerced or abused into publishing the book.

HarperCollins said the manuscript had been recently re-discovered by her lawyer and in a statement released by HarperCollins, Lee said she was "humbled and amazed" that it would be published.

She said she had thought "Watchman" a "pretty decent effort" but as a first-time writer "did as I was told" and recast the manuscript.