Ancient relations, explored with a deep compassion
Author portrays Neanderthals with empathy, showing how they have been misunderstood
There’s a moment in Claire Cameron’s new novel The Last Neanderthal when Girl — the Neanderthal hero — curls her lip to expose her gums to the air, so she can better read the energy of the forest. It’s a form of listening that allowed Neanderthals to be alert to signs of danger. Communicating with animals, trees and other natural phenomenon, Girl is able to discern where there’s an energetic discord, disharmony on the territory her family calls home.
Girl’s inviolable trust in the innate wisdom of her body stands in stark contrast to the cerebral hyper-focus of the book’s contemporary foil. Rosamund Gale, leading a secretive dig in France, is a driven archeologist whose evolutionary strength rests in her ability to negotiate with the complexities of the 21st century through bullish intelligence and reason.
The parallels and contradictions of their individual struggles underpin Cameron’s moving and thoroughly convincing followup to The Bear. Impeccable research renders Cameron’s Neanderthals wholly familiar. Girl and her family possess a range of nearly human traits and emotions: grief, joy, fear, pride, desire. In addition to Girl, we meet Big Mother, the wise, no-nonsense matriarch; Him, the handsome and loyal son; Bent, deformed but nonetheless resourceful; and Runt, an adopted child of questionable origins.
We land in the book at a pivotal moment. Girl is reaching maturity just as cataclysmic events have reduced the family’s numbers at the advent of the allimportant hunting season, a time when she is expected to find a mate. Forty thousand years later, in the same corner of the Earth, Rosamund is in denial about her late-stage pregnancy and its possible impact on her career.
Cameron has an exceptional ability to build tension and suspense through tuning us into the drama and plot lines inherent in the natural world. Through Girl’s body, we experience a planet 40,000 years old, full of unpredictable weather and harrowing shifts of season. We hunt wild bison, build an airy summer camp, settle in with a pile of warm bodies for an extended period of winter sleep. We choose our verbal communication carefully, selecting from an efficient handful
Cameron has the ability to build suspense through tuning us in to the drama inherent in the natural world
of vocalizations like aroo (a warning) and warm (family).
We also experience the corporeal pleasures of Girl’s powerful appetite.
Here’s Girl, after her first sexual experience:
“I am the body . . . The hunger that had been gnawing at her belly was fully sated. She found a way to satisfy the craving and there was no question she would indulge it.”
It’s this deep faith in her body’s power that bolsters Girl as she ventures into new territory in search of her older sister. Accompanying Girl is Runt, who is maturing wholly unlike Girl’s Neanderthal brethren. Some of the most moving passages of the book centre on the tender relationship between Girl and Runt — her exceeding patience for his childish verbal ramblings (“crowfoot” she calls it), her protective instincts when he is threatened, her panic when he heads out alone into the bush, along a strangely-marked trail. Far in the future, meanwhile, Rosamund’s life is driven by the concerns of our time: ambition, reward, the illusion of self-control. In her singleminded focus on the dig, she denies herself even the simplest physical comforts and neglects her unborn child. Her relationship with her partner Simon is a muted affair, marked more by strategic logistics than any true passion. All of this suits Rosamund quite well, until the final stages of her pregnancy, when she’s forced to confront questions of mortality, vulnerability and dependence in ways that are entirely foreign.
The Last Neanderthal masterfully examines our connections to our evolutionary cousins. It takes aim at the myth that Neanderthals were unintelligent cave people. Cameron uses the latest research to underscore how humans and Neanderthals share much in common genetically, how we once lived together and even interbred. It’s a book that asks probing questions about our disconnect from the Earth and from the symbiotic relationships that have guided mammals such as ourselves throughout time.
Girl is a familiar hero, faced with difficult, life-altering choices about loyalty, longing and complex family ties. The fact that she is from another species — and that Cameron renders her with such exquisite compassion — speaks to the author’s deep empathy, consummate skill as an artist and deep-hearted vision. The Last Neanderthal is a novel to cherish. Trevor Corkum’s novel The Electric Boy is forthcoming with Doubleday Canada.