The Inheritors by William Golding. A chewy but fascinating and impressive prehistorical novel by the author of Lord of the Flies. Golding himself thought it his best. This review first appeared in Nudge Books (now NB).
‘The people’ are returning from their winter quarters by the sea. They are troubled by a sense of ‘other’. The familiar landscape has changed and there are signs and shadows that worry them. One by one they meet the new thing, something beyond their understanding.
Golding’s 1955 novel, which he considered his best, tells the story of a small group of Neanderthals meeting Homo sapiens for the first time. It’s not hard to see why he rated it so highly; it’s enormously impressive. Imagining a species both like and unlike us from the inside is absurdly difficult and at best risks being done in a technically accomplished but flat ‘creative writing exercise’ way, or as something authentic-seeming but impenetrably obscure. Golding’s creation is loosely informed by science rather than guided by it, much of what he describes is his own invention, but he makes it both plausible and absorbing. The narrative, with a careful balance between being convincingly strange and being readable, still feels original sixty years on. Golding also, and this may be the most impressive thing, makes the Neanderthals individuals.
The Neanderthals are tactile, keen-nosed, super-empathetic, and morally and intellectually innocent. Their innocence is quasi-Biblical; they haven’t eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge. They are more ‘natural’ than Homo sapiens. This could easily be an overly obvious parable, an allegory for the evil of humans and civilisation, but it isn’t. The contrast between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is dramatic, but it is also subtle and ambivalent. We’re never told what to think; everything is suggested rather than being served in ready-to-eat didactic portions. The dark glamour of the humans is equivocal and troubling, while the way that Golding has the Neanderthals react to unfamiliar technologies, such as the bow and arrow, is superbly worked. I particularly liked the Neanderthals’ first encounter with alcohol (mead):
His nose caught the scent of what they drank. It was sweeter and fiercer then the other water, it was like the fire and the fall. It was a bee-water, smelling of honey and wax and decay, it drew toward and repelled, it frightened and excited like the people themselves.
The Inheritors needs some investment. I had to stop from time to time as my full head needed a pause to digest its way clear, but by the end I was entirely absorbed. The final scenes are both moving and full of ideas, leaving a powerful afterimage. It’s a chewy book, but possibly a great one.