Toronto Star

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.

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