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The Inheritors by William Golding

June 13, 2014


Written in 1955, this is the second novel by the British novelist made famous by Lord of the Flies. I somehow managed to make it through all of school without reading LOTF, but have it on my bookshelf now. I decided to read this one first instead—I’m not sure why. And I wish I could remember who recommended this book.

The Inheritors tells the story of a band of primitive people on the verge of extinction. Although it is never mentioned in the body of the story, the epigraph that opens the novel is a quote from H.G. Wells that indicates we are reading of a band of Neanderthals. The characters have names like Lok, Ha, Mal, Fa and Nil. Likewise, the syntax is truncated, with short, simplistic sentences that reflect an infantile comprehension of the world. In some ways, the characters are like modern humans, but mostly they are exotic and mysterious. For all but the last couple of chapters, we see the world from their point of view and observe their customs, spiritual belief systems and the way they communicate from an inside but detached vantage point. Nothing is explained outright, and so, like an anthropologist with a time machine, the reader must make hypotheses about the life and culture (and story, at times) of this unfamiliar species based on scattered clues. It is all incredibly imaginative, and Golding is deft at giving sufficient information for the reader to piece together what’s happening but not always understand the specifics.

In terms of the narrative, we’re introduced to the band of Neanderthals as they complete their annual spring migration up a mountain. They are at a critical point, where they must find food to support their community, and there is fear that they have made the migration too early, before food is available. Key members of the community are dying. It is a time of transition—not just a seasonal transition for this particular group but, one intuits, epochal change. And then arrives a group of outsiders. A new species—early homo sapiens. And we watch through the eyes of the Neanderthal as they try to understand this strange, advanced people who walk upright and launch shoot arrows at the Neanderthals. It becomes clear why the epigraph that opens the book is from H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds. One realizes how terrifying it must be to encounter and be outmatched by an unknown, more intelligent species.

Intellectually, this book is really interesting. Even writing this review, I find myself liking the book more. But even at it’s short length, reading it is a slog. Much of the description is of physical movement, climbing cliffs, hanging on branches, dragging sticks. The plot is the premise. The idea is great, but I found the story itself rarely engaging. I imagine this will be a book that grows on me a little over time, but as a reading experience, it was a little lacking.

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