Thoughts: The Inheritors, by William Golding

I feel like I should have a lot to say about this one, but I don’t think I do, and I’m disappointed with myself. I should have clever things to say – it was a clever book, but what can I say more than I enjoyed it?

When you hear the name of William Golding, you think of savage schoolboys, but he had a few other tricks up his sleeve, apparently. The Inheritors is about the end of the neanderthals* and the beginning of the age of humanity. Basically, the ultimate historical fiction.

It’s about the loss of innocence, and being squarely in the Anthropocene** as we are now (and watching all the nature documentaries I’ve been watching, which all have to contain the sad facts of human influence on and interference with the world) it ended in an almost Tolkien-esque sadness (“fighting the long defeat”).

The book is written from the point of view of the neanderthals, specifically the stupidest one (possibly mean of me to say), and covers a small family? unit’s first encounter with homo sapiens. We learn about their own lives, from their seasonal journeys from one living place to another, to their strange almost-telepathy, to their religion venerating the ice-women (I never really quite got what these were – glaciers?). They’re vegetarians (but will scavenge meat, feeling slightly guilty about it) and don’t quite have the ability to solve puzzles or make tools, though they’re coming close. Fa, another of the neanderthals, almost invents bowls/containers but she can’t quite articulate the idea, and the others don’t understand it. Their development is just too slow. They’ve already been overtaken by homo sapiens, and they can’t coexist.

Homo sapiens, alarmingly bald and equipped with bows and crude fermented forms of alcohol and the beginnings of culture, is ruled by fear, a survival instinct gone haywire perhaps. They’re equipped for survival in this world, but that survival comes at a price. They don’t have the neanderthals’ peace of mind or naive optimism – they know how the world works, and they know when bad things are coming, or when they might come. It’s the Garden of Eden, basically (I did read the introduction to the book; I very much didn’t come up with this).

The story covers a short period of time, and in a lot of ways not much happens in the way of action, but once I managed to slip into the writing style and Lok’s mindset, I couldn’t stop reading. And it’s not an easy book to read. I read Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, and the writing style in that was choppy and strange, but once you were in, you were in – the words seemed to bypass your understanding and go right to the core of your thoughts. The Inheritors isn’t like that. The writing is simple but somehow complex. Clear and difficult to understand. Lok sees everything in such a simple way that he is easily confused by anything unfamiliar, like the homo sapiens’ odd religious rituals and use of weapons, and in describing them they become unfamiliar to us the reader because he doesn’t have the tools to understand how they work. He can’t describe how a human pulls back a bow and fires an arrow because he doesn’t have those words or the ability to understand physics enough to know how the arrow is launched. The Inheritors isn’t very long but it demands your attention all the way through, and even then I think I missed some things.

What’s really impressive and easy to miss because it is so impressive, is that a lot of Golding’s knowledge was based on educated speculation. The knowledge we have now, about neanderthal/human interbreeding etc, was simply not there. And though Golding obviously takes liberties (telepathy) and guesses wrong (see this article for more details) the amount he gets right is impressive. The feel he manages to evoke is impressive. Simply writing these characters as not-human in their very mindsets and physical ability to think is ridiculously impressive.

And the way he manages to make us feel for these non-human characters is impressive. Vicious, clever animals driven by fear we may all be, but anyone who manages to get through the ending without a pang of emotion is neither human nor neanderthal in my book.

*He never calls them that, to be fair, but for the sake of comprehension I’ll use it here.

**Not official term?

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