The Inheritors by William Golding (1955) 271 p.

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The quote at the beginning makes it clear that this is a book about Neanderthals, which is a shame, because it would be a more interesting book if the reader was left to figure that out themselves. Nonetheless, we have a story told from the point of view of Lok, a member of “the people,” who are evidently a small family of Neanderthals somewhere in the paleolithic era.

The popular image of Neanderthals (or any cavemen) is as thuggish brutes, but Golding depicts them as sweet-natured and pacifistic; they gather but don’t hunt, and though at one point they scavenge meat from a sabre-toothed tiger’s fresh kill they feel very guilty about it. They aren’t very bright and seem to communicate through a form of low-grade telepathy, sharing “pictures.” Their simple and relatively happy way of life is thrown into turmoil when some of their number start disappearing, and they realise that their local area has a new group of people in it – not Neanderthals, but much smarter and more ruthless homo sapiens.

So as with Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors is an allegorical story about humankind’s deeper brutality. The difference is that while Lord of the Flies‘ surface story is quite interesting to follow, The Inheritors is a semi-experimental work of fiction which is very focused on the physical, of living Lok’s day-to-day experience as a sequence of actions, with a limited capacity for remembering the past or imagining the future. (The final chapter is told from the point of view of one of the humans, and it’s startling how simultaneously normal and different it is after 200 pages of Neanderthal thinking.) This bored me. The book is more interesting in the second half as the humans arrive and you try to deduce exactly what they’re up to, but overall I still found this to be one of those books that’s more interesting as an idea (or a Wikipedia synopsis) than as an actual reading experience.

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