Doubleday Canada, 2017
Reviewed by Alim Rawji
“Words could be empty. It was the return of a gesture that held meaning.”
Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal presents readers with the dual narrative of two women separated by 40,000 years. While these two characters are different in almost every conceivable aspect, they both serve to illustrate themes: the indomitable human spirit; female empowerment; and the nature of humanity.
The majority of the novel follows a Neanderthal named Girl who is exiled from her family and must find a way to survive on her own in the harsh and untamed wilderness of the world. Cameron beautifully writes this pre-historic society in a way that is simultaneously familiar to our own, and strange and simplistic enough to be 200,000 years ago.
Girl is raised in a family with three brothers; Him, Bent, and Runt. Her father is strangely absent for a hunter/gatherer society. Cameron gives it a matriarchal structure in which Girl’s mother, Big Mother, is the leader and decision-maker of the family unit. The responsibility of finding an appropriate mate and beginning another family falls to Girl.
The other part of The Last Neanderthal’s narrative revolves around the 21st-century archeologist Rosamund Gale. In the defining moment of her career, she discovers the remains of two Neanderthals in what appears to be a loving embrace. They are coined “The Lovers” and could potentially catapult Rosamund’s career as she’s always craved. The female skeleton belongs to Girl, but who does the male remains belong to?
This mystery compels the reader forward as the most interesting component of Rosamund’s story. Rosamund’s mundane anxieties over her pregnancy and future career pale in comparison to Girl’s tale of survival in the Neanderthal world. In any other story, they might have been much more poignant. It certainly doesn’t help that out of the 30 chapters in the novel, Rosamund’s point of view is only featured in eight.
Readers want to find out how Girl ends up entwined in the arms of the mysterious male Neanderthal, but the slow pace of the writing can be frustrating at times. Girl’s main conflict, the exile from her family and journey into the unknown, doesn’t begin until chapter 13. While the world Cameron builds in the previous 12 chapters is excellent and thorough, much of it might have been explained in flashback or peripheral detail.
Overall, The Last Neanderthal is an excellent concept, but is flawed in its execution. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t an enjoyable read, but one that could have been improved by changes to its structure.