West of Eden by Harry Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like many children from troubled, broken homes, at age 12 I sought refuge from trauma by seeking to escape from the world that surrounded me. It was my good fortune that my chosen escape was not into drugs or gangs, but rather into books. I devoured works of fiction like an opioid – for how important were the financial woes of my family compared to the danger facing Frodo and indeed all of Middle Earth? How could the feuds of embittered parents matter, pinned against the fate of the majestic Ringworlds?
It was then that I found Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, a book that spoke to me even more than Lord of the Rings or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Because Harrison’s epic is also a coming-of-age story, and that is what I needed at the time. It might be too much to say West of Eden, on its own, saved me. But it certainly felt like that at the time.
I rarely re-read books, but when I saw it last month on the shelf of a neighbour’s house (ok, it’s true I bought it for them), I perused the first chapter out of wry nostalgia. How would a fantasy coming-of-age story hit a reader whose coming of age was three decades in the past? Were the things I loved so much about it a product of circumstance, like that cheap packaged hot dog you had that one time by the campfire, which tasted like nothing else on earth?
To my great surprise, in under a chapter I was hooked all over again. Like the resolution of an Ultra-HD television, the richness in the narrative is at first only felt. It comes from an untold backstory that exists only in Harrison’s head. It’s not until you get to the appendix that you realise he bothered to think out an entire language for both the Tanu (the tribe of hunter-gatherers flying the banner for warm-blooded civilisation) and the Yilane (the dino-humanoids flying the cold-blooded banner).
With all the sensitivity of a subtle thinker, Harrison invites the reader to sympathise with both sides in this clash of civilisations. And in doing so, he makes a strong statement about the meaning of right and wrong. Like the protagonist Kerrick, a part of us cheers when the Tanu hunters plunge their spears into the hideous reptilian beasts. And like Kerrick, another part of us weeps at the wanton savagery and destruction of a beautiful Yilane, cut down in her prime. We can glimpse how the reptilians might see us – stinking, half-fur covered beasts with low cunning and no real knowledge of science. Is not every war a question of perspective? Is the Ukrainian soldier lying dead in the frozen mud any different to the Russian one?
West of Eden deserves to be called an epic because it is more than a coming-of-age story. It is more than a clash-of-civilisations story. It is more than just escapism. In the same way as Lord of the Rings, it transcends its own genre and tells us something important about who we: Like Kerrick, we are all, somehow, the damaged children of broken homes. And we are all searching for the peace and comfort of a better life. We are all alone, surrounded by the other, caught between two worlds.
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West of Eden by Harry Harrison