Scribbling his novels down in exercise books during his lunch hour, Salisbury schoolmaster William Golding had to fight for every free minute to write. Being surrounded by wailing schoolchildren inspired his first novel, The Lord of the Flies, published just before his 43rd birthday in 1954.
Whatever his publishers had expected for his follow-up, they must have been astonished when Golding produced a novel about neanderthals: The Inheritors.
Like Richard Adams in Watership Down, in this book Golding achieves the trick of making the familiar British countryside seem like a dark and dangerous place. A tribe of neanderthals are scraping together a subsistence diet from a barren landscape. It is the end of winter and they are looking forward to the bounty of summer, just as strangers arrive in the valley that the tribe inhabits. These are modern humans who have much more advanced weapons, boats and clothing. It is the moment of first contact, and it will have tragic consequences.
The Inheritors is not an easy read. We mostly see the action through the eyes of Lok, a kindly but rather dim-witted member of the troupe. Often it is not clear what is happening because Lok lacks the vocabulary and understanding to explain clearly what he is seeing, for example, in this moment when a human fires an arrow at him:
His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks.
There are many sections like this which are necessary to read several times to figure out what is actually happening. It is a novel from another age in more ways than one. Back in 1955, most people didn’t have TV and so had more time to puzzle over complicated prose in this way. Today, it tries our patience.
Nevertheless, there is also some beautiful writing here. Golding’s greatest talent was describing nature and geography. Take this description of a swamp near the neanderthal camp:
The drab light increased, silvered, and the black water of the marshes shone. A bird squawked among the islands of reed and briar. Far off, the stag of all stags blared and blared again. The mud around Lok’s ankles tightened so that he had to balance with his arms.
The novel has become dated. We know much more about neanderthals these days, thanks to all those documentaries showing impoverished actors bounding about wearing nothing but clumps of artificial hair, and waving bones about. Back when it was written, The Inheritors was a brave and original attempt to show a world that had gone. As a novel, it is hard work and something of a slog, even for being such a short book. However, like all of Golding’s work, there are flashes of brilliance here.