National Post

Girl, interrupte­d

- Jamie Portman Weekend Post

The Last Neandertha­l By Claire Cameron Doubleday Canada 288 pp: $29.95

A couple of years ago, novelist Claire Cameron was taking a wintry hike along a rugged stretch of the Niagara escarpment when she chanced on an ancient limestone cave. That was enough to transport her back 40,000 years to the days when Neandertha­ls inhabited our planet – and to the book that was taking shape in her mind.

“I sat in there and you know how cold rock gets in the winter.” Sitting in a cozy room in the downtown office of her Toronto publisher, Cameron manages a mock shiver at the memory. “It was miserable,” she laughs. But she remembers relishing the experience, because it opened another crack into the distant world of her new novel, The Last Neandertha­l.

She explains that research into a mysterious and long extinct species continues to spark debate.

“One of the biggest controvers­ies has to do with whether Neandertha­ls lived in caves,” she says. “Yet we are always finding artifacts in caves.” That Niagara experience helped her make up her novelist’s mind. Cameron imagined herself living in a permanent wilderness situation in the dead of winter – “I’d be out in the snow, but I’d come into the cave if I needed to.” Such images helped “breathe life” into what she was writing.

The Last Neandertha­l, published by Doubleday Canada, confirms this effervesce­nt 43- year- old Torontonia­n as Canada’s foremost practition­er of survival fiction.

Her previous novel, The Bear, dealing with two young children fending for themselves in Algonquin Park after a bear attack on their parents, became a national bestseller. The new book is set in a distant time when the last family of Neandertha­ls is roaming the earth and when the oldest daughter – known only as Girl – finds herself thrust into a hostile landscape, her only companion a found ling named Runt.

This sort of material comes naturally to Cameron, who started taking risks as a child.

“I was a tree climber,” she re members. “And I have a very vivid memory of jumping on the couch and trying to see if I could hit the other wall.”

There was also the lure of the outdoors.

“The experience of surviving in the wilderness is something that’s fascinated me for along time ,” she points out. She cites her time as an Outward Bound instructor, her mountain climbing, her stint as a whitewater rafting leader in Oregon.

“That sort of risk- taking is very much like writing. You’re pushing yourself.”

But with The Last Neandertha­l, she sometimes worried that she was pushing herself into an impossible corner. She kept restarting the book – at least 65 times – because she kept thinking it wasn’t right.

It was terrifying,” she says now. “You think – I’ll be roundly mocked for trying to write from the perspectiv­e of a Neandertha­l. That’s scary.” But she carried on. “I think what I like about writing is that I can take such huge risks from the safety of my computer.”

So why Neandertha­ls? Cameron says they exert a “primal pull” on her.

She remembers being taught in school that “they were an evolutiona­ry step between the apes and us – hairy, grunting knuckledra­ggers who died out because they were inferior. . . .”

Recent research, however, suggests they were more than that. And Cameron’s novel is driven by one tantalizin­g question: did Neandertha­ls and humans ever make contact, and if so how?

“We don’t know the answer, but a novelist should take on the risk of imagining one.”

Girl’s ordeal intertwine­s with a modern narrative involving a driven and very pregnant female archaeolog­ist racing against time to excavate recently discovered Neandertha­l artifacts before she gives birth. Two parallel situations 40,000 years apart – what’s the link? The novel offers some fascinatin­g answers.

Cameron stresses that the book is a blend of fact and fiction. “I guess my job as a novelist is to take the risk of going beyond what we can’t know.”

Meanwhile, new certaintie­s continue to emerge – including the break- through mapping of the Neandertha­l genome in 2010.

“I was certainly taught in school that we evolved from Neandertha­ls, but now the common view is that we lived alongside them and could interbreed with them,” Cameron says.

“We’ve also found that Neandertha­ls had the gene that enables speech in humans – so taken together, that suggests Neandertha­ls had the capacity to speak. But that’ s something we can’t know for certain. We can’t hear them from 40,000 years ago, so t hat’s where I stepped in with fiction.”

Even so, Cameron had to find a voice for Girl that


satisfied her.

“I had to shake off the old ideas. We think of them as grunting, but most experts now think they had a short larynx and a high- pitched voice they really had to force out.”

So what does she hope readers take away from The Last Neandertha­l?

“We have this story of ourselves going from primitive to perfect, and it’s a comforting story because it allows us to see that we’ve evolved to this position of being masters of the earth with Neandertha­ls dying off because they were inferior. But now science is showing us that there are more components to the story than we realize.”

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