Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) 225p.

Lord of the Flies is one of those enduring stories that has entered basic pop culture awareness, and has been spoofed and mimicked and referenced so many times that almost everyone has heard of it, and most would have a basic grasp of the plot (shipwrecked children descend into savagery) even if they don’t know the specifics. For my part, I remember watching the 1990 film version (which makes the kids American, but is otherwise a fairly faithful, albeit mediocre, adaptation) as part of the curriculum in high school. Showing Lord of the Flies to teenagers is, of course, a fairly pointless exercise. I don’t remember it well, but I’m pretty sure the class’ general reaction was something along the lines of the Aryan Brotherhood watching Jesse’s confession tape in Breaking Bad.

So I knew all the basic plot points, and the ending, but it’s still an intense and gripping novel. Golding is an excellent author (a Nobel laureate, which I didn’t know before) and his depictions of the island are one of the strongest points in the book – a heat-soaked scrap of land covered in thick, stringy jungle, shadows under the creepers, butterflies dancing around each other – a beautiful and peaceful place which nonetheless has an eerie sense of menace about it. The gradual shift in power and authority among the children, as they go from following an elected “chief” to falling into line behind a vicious, bullying dictator, is a masterpiece of foreboding and dread, and I especially liked the adrenaline-soaked final chapter as the protagonist desperately flees for his life.

I’d thought before reading it that Lord of the Flies was set during World War II, but apparently it actually takes place during an “evacuation” in the middle of a nuclear war, as we learn from a few intriguing scraps of dialogue. This goes some way towards explaining why the children aren’t rescued for so long, and draws a clear parallel between their own brutality and the wider violence in the adult world, particularly in the novel’s final sentence.

There’s a lot of that, actually – symbolism and juxtaposition and themes about morality and authority, to the point where it almost feels like Golding was writing it with one eye on the English curriculum; I half-expected to see those essay questions that some editions of classic novels have at the back. But it’s hard to fault him for this when the book is, simply put, so great. Lord of the Flies is a dark and brilliant novel that everybody should read.