‘The Last Neanderthal’ by Claire Cameron

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Clarissa Fortin

Imagine stumbling upon a fully grown Neanderthal woman in the forest.

“She would spread the fingers of her left palm to greet you,” reads the prologue of Claire Cameron’s latest novel The Last Neanderthal. “You’ve never seen such a magnificent creature … she could close up your throat with one squeeze. Don’t run though.”

“Hold up your palm. Spread your fingers out like hers … When you look into her eyes, you will feel an immediate connection. All the difference drops away. You each know with certainty that you can feel the mind of the other. You share a single thought: I am not alone.

Modern humans have inherited up to four per cent of our DNA from the now extinct Neanderthal species. This means early humans must have mated with Neanderthals at some point. It’s not a fact I thought about before reading Cameron’s novel.

I sometimes catch myself thinking that the interior life I experience must be vastly different from that of my ancestors. It’s a story we tell ourselves about ourselves: we’re more sophisticated, more nuanced, more human than the ones who died out. But, as Cameron points out in her novel, the human brain “hasn’t evolved substantially in the past 50 thousand years.” The world we live in has changed but we’re still inexorably connected to those who preceded us. They are, after all, the reason we’re here.

Cameron considers the complex feelings of our Neanderthal counterparts. She imagines questions they must have asked about the world and themselves, and she explores this landscape of our distant past predominantly through the eyes of women both modern and ancient.

The Last Neanderthal follows Cameron’s The Bear, a novel about a five-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother trying to survive in the Algonquin forest in the wake of a bear attack that kills their parents. The Last Neanderthal is a different kind of survival story. Cameron introduces us to a Neanderthal family in the tense days just before they are due to attend the annual summer fish run where families gather and mating displays occur. In a parallel plotline, she also tells the tale of modern-day archaeologist Dr. Rosamund Gale.

I long ago became accustomed to the archetypal Neanderthal man: fierce, hairy, and purely instinctual. Cameron’s “Girl” rejects this stereotype. She is fierce and possesses tremendous survival instincts, but she’s also recognizable. You might see yourself in her. I certainly did.

Cameron’s Neanderthal society is matriarchal. “Big Mothers” mate with multiple partners and give birth to their own tight family unit. Him, the oldest brother in the Neanderthal family, will seek a female mate at the fish run. Girl, the oldest daughter, will look for a new family to join as a Big Mother. She does eventually mate and become pregnant, but circumstances separate her from most of the family, and she’s left to fend for herself.

Cameron’s creation of the Neanderthal society and language is reminiscent of Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone—in her notes, Cameron cites Gowdy’s novel as a direct inspiration. However, the way Dr. Gale jostles for survival and space in a competitive academic world reminded me of the works of Carol Shields, particularly Swann and Unless.

Recent discoveries show that Neanderthal women could have been light-skinned red-haired individuals who hunted big game alongside men. This is how Cameron envisions Girl, with “a shock of red hair” and “densely packed muscles.” Hers is in many ways a classic coming-of-age tale. Girl feels the first stirrings of sexual desire. She longs for autonomy but fears change. She rebels against her mother. When circumstances force the family apart she aches for the days when they used to sleep “curled into one another in a tangle.” We might call that “love.” Girl calls it “warm.”

Meanwhile, fifty thousand or so years later, Dr. Gale races to excavate a Neanderthal woman and an early human man buried side by side. Gale is eager to use her discovery to prove her theory that Neanderthals were as intelligent as homo sapiens. She is also pregnant for the first time, and determined to continue her research despite her growing belly. Writing in first person, Cameron bracingly describes Dr. Gale’s steadfast devotion to her field of study, and her increasingly desperate attempts to maintain control over the dig site and the overall narrative of her discovery.

The challenge of telling the story this way is the huge shift between past and present. Chapters alternate between Dr. Gale’s first-person narrative and the third-person telling of Girl’s story. The constant transitioning can be jarring but Cameron finds ways to keep her characters linked across thousands of years.

The Neanderthal family speaks only about 12 words, so Cameron focuses on body language to convey relationships: a look, a touch of the shoulder, a particular facial expression—all these cues become crucial for communication and Cameron emphasizes their importance in the modern world as well. When Dr. Gale’s partner Simon comes to visit her she says, “I’d usually walk to him, put a hand under his chin, and lift his eyes to mine; it was our established greeting.” She observes that Simon often looks down as a show of respect, and his respect is a crucial part of their relationship. As in the Neanderthal chapters, Cameron uses these physical cues to tell us more about her characters than dialogue ever could.

As Girl fights to defend her food and family, Dr. Gale fights for dominance in the cut-throat world of academic research. After the family successfully kills two bison they must immediately begin to store and defend the meat because “the lightest breeze could carry scents of a successful hunt for long distances.” This passage mirrors the urgency Dr. Gale feels while excavating—but in this case her predators are fellow human academics and reporters: “The pressure to finish was mounting because rumours about the site were swirling within the paleoarchaeology community. I’d have to fend off a deluge of visit requests.”

Ultimately though, it’s the parallel but individual experiences of pregnancy that connect the two narratives. Both Gale and Girl grapple with the profound emotional and physical changes that come with creating life. There is little room for sentimentality in this story of motherhood. Both women are painfully aware that their condition makes them vulnerable.

Cameron never lets us forget that Girl’s is a harsh survival-focused world, where often mother and child cannot both thrive. She doesn’t shy away from significant strains childbearing puts on a fiercely ambitious academic like Dr. Gale. There is no moment when the baby is born and the mother feels instant love and serenity. Instead this is a story about survival. Through Girl and Dr. Gale, Cameron explores what it means to inhabit a fragile yet resilient physical body, and to operate a fragile yet resilient mind.

Despite the occasional tonal shifts that come from switching from past to present, Cameron has succeeded at creating a gripping, cohesive story with two compelling women at its heart. Her novel taught me new things, made me reconsider what I already knew about humanity’s beginnings, and made me want to learn more.

Doubleday Canada | 288 pages | $29.95 | cloth | ISBN# 9780385686785

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Clarissa Fortin

Clarissa Fortin is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist. Her work can be found on rabble.ca, the Charlatan, and Quill and Quire