The Inheritors by William Golding
When I used to work at a mainstream school, we taught William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ as part of year 10 English. We used this exceptional novel to teach aspects of creative writing, such as perspective, description, and the principle of “show, don’t tell”: don’t tell the reader what’s going on, show them some important details and let them work it out for themselves.
Like all rules of writing, the rule of “show, don’t tell” can be broken by particularly great writers. But you need to learn the rules before you can break them, and when done skillfully, “show, don’t tell” can engage the reader in the construction the story, render a situation more vivid, and avoid cliché. William Golding’s mastery of “show, don’t tell” is on full display in ‘Lord of the Flies’, but in ‘The Inheritors’ it is dazzling.
‘The Inheritors’ is told from the perspective of a small band of Neanderthals who encounter Homo Sapiens for the first time. The Neanderthals are depicted as a gentle people with strong social bonds, who do have language and thought (they see “pictures” in their heads) but in a very different way from us. As such, it took me a while to get used to the narration, which mimics the non-linear thought process of the protagonist, Lok. The novel rewards perseverance, however.
As Lok watches “the new people”, he tries to understand what he sees, and the narrative plunges the reader into his confusion. When one of the new people shoots at him with a bow-and-arrow, it is described thus:
The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle… The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again.
The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice.
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.
There are similarly ingenious depictions of other early human rituals, such as drunken revelry, religious sacrifice, and slavery – all told from the perspective of creatures who have no notion of these activities, let alone words to describe them.
When Lok and another Neanderthal, Fa, creep into the new people’s camp and try some of their alcohol, they experience drunkenness and hangovers for the first time: an episode which William Golding’s daughter has suggested was drawn from her father’s own alcoholism. It is also a brilliant display of Golding’s mastery of perspective: where a lesser writer might have written “Lok fell over and crashed onto the ground”, Golding writes: “… then the earth stood up and hit his right side a thunderous blow”.
The first eleven-and-a-half chapters are told from a Neanderthal perspective, but then the last part of the eleventh chapter zooms out and watches Lok as though from far away. In the most moving part of the book, and the most brilliant example of “show, don’t tell”, we witness “the red creature” grieving for the loss of a loved one – without a single word being uttered about death, grief, or tears. I won’t give it away.
The final chapter is told from the perspective of one of the “new people”, and we are suddenly back into more familiar narrative territory – yet not necessarily happy to be there, among this species with such capacity for violence. ‘The Inheritors’ is not always an easy novel, and a times lacks the driving narrative of ‘Lord of the Flies’. But it is fascinating to witness our own species through the eyes of the gentle Neanderthals – whom the novel suggests were driven to extinction by Homo Sapiens, out of misunderstanding and fear.