The Last Neanderthal
Claire Cameron (Doubleday Canada)
In town: Claire Cameron appears at the Ottawa International Writers Festival April 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. For tickets and information, please see writersfestival.org.
Pity Neanderthals. They get little respect. They are generally viewed as knuckle-dragging half-wits, barely a step above chimpanzees on the evolutionary ladder. But maybe we have got it all wrong.
Indeed, scientists are increasingly updating their knowledge of these upright beings that inhabited Europe and western Asia for 200,000 years. They had rudimentary language, likely spoken in high-pitched voices. They were capable of abstract thought. They made tools and medicines, wore jewellery and held funeral rites.
Neanderthals also mated with humans before becoming extinct. Today, up to four per cent of human DNA is Neanderthal.
With all that in mind, Toronto author Claire Cameron has crafted a novel that takes us into the minds of Neanderthals, exploring their emotions, drives and thought processes. The Last Neanderthal, from Doubleday Canada, is a mixture of fact and supposition. It’s a work of the imagination but always sounds credible in its treatment of our ancient cousins.
Cameron is best known for her last book, The Bear, a novel longlisted in 2014 for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize, for the best English-language fiction by a woman anywhere in the world. The Bear is the story of two young children left alone in the wilderness of Algonquin Park after their parents are killed by a bear. The narrator of that bestseller is a five-year-old girl whose voice and point of view are as unconventional in a novel as that of a Neanderthal or animal. In fact, in Cameron’s acknowledgements at the back of The Last Neanderthal, she pays tribute to Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, an amazingly original novel written from the viewpoint of elephants. Gowdy, says Cameron, “gave me the courage to write this book.”
The success of The Bear has made The Last Neanderthal one of the most anticipated books of 2017. A group of 800 librarians across Canada have named The Last Neanderthal their top pick for April this year in what is known as the Loan Stars program. Cameron appears in Ottawa April 28 courtesy of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. She shares a stage with none other than Gowdy.
Cameron’s new book is primarily about one Neanderthal woman, simply named Girl. Woven into the novel is the story of Rose, a contemporary Canadian archaeologist who discovers Girl’s 40,000-year-old skeleton in a cave in France. Girl’s remains are found beside that of a human skeleton. The two face one another and are quickly branded The Lovers.
The lives of Girl and Rose run on parallel tracks. Both are fearless and pitted against hostile forces. Both are pregnant for much of the novel. Their pregnancies dangerously complicate both of their lives. Salvation for both comes from other women.
At times, these parallel tracks seem forced, the author’s manipulative hand too evident. This is especially true in the way the two women respond to their newborn babies. To say more about that would be to divulge important plot developments.
The men in The Last Neanderthal tend to be bit players in both ancient and contemporary times. They produce sperm and do some heavy lifting but not much else, especially in Girl’s story, where matriarchal family groups are presented as the norm.
The Neanderthal men tend to get killed by wild animals while women survive and soldier on, even when very pregnant. This is fiction, both contemporary and historical, from women’s point of view. But is it a “feminist” novel? That question could become a lively topic of debate in a women’s studies class. Girl is one tough cookie but her own mother temporarily banishes her from the family, in favour of a more muscular son, when forced to make a choice.
Cave-woman era feminism aside, the real strength of the novel is the imagined world of the Neanderthals. That is what sets this novel above the ordinary. Readers love unconventional points of view. Think of Andre Alexis’s “talking” dogs in the Giller-Prize-winning Fifteen Dogs, Gowdy’s elephant novel, or Nutshell, the Ian McEwan story narrated by an unborn baby. These are all novels that fascinate. They also make us dream, philosophize and ultimately force us to ask the question: What makes us human?
Main art: Claire Cameron’s new novel is called The Last Neanderthal. Photo: David Kerr