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Book Reviews Review: Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal looks at two women separated by history

Claire Cameron

David Kerr

Title
The Last Neanderthal
Author
Claire Cameron
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Doubleday Canada
Pages
277
Price
$29.95

Claire Cameron's follow-up to her bestselling novel The Bear tells of two women separated by more than 40,000 years of history yet united by the timeless challenges of looming maternity and prickly environs.

The first, referred to simply as Girl, is a Neanderthal struggling to forage for food and fend off hostile beasts as her cohort dwindles dramatically.

The second, Rose, is an archaeologist with a bone to pick regarding established notions concerning the very archaic subspecies to which Girl belongs.

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The present-day portion of The Last Neanderthal begins with Rose's discovery of Girl's remains, nestled alongside those of a modern human, in a small cavern near France's Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. Countering the "Darwinian" reading of natural selection, Rose is determined to prove that Neanderthals, with whom we share 99.7 per cent of our DNA, were not inferior to modern humans, their extinction being the product of low population density rather than a debilitating dearth of intellectual or physical abilities.

Girl, meanwhile, sets out to prove nothing at all, aside from her capacity for survival, and yet hers is the more persuasive half of Cameron's tandem narrative. The parallels between Girl and Rose, which are largely to do with their respective pregnancies, are broad and awkwardly imposed, but the former has a surprising edge on the latter: Compared to Girl's mostly straightforward survival yarn, Rose's story feels like a highly convoluted afterthought.

Rose, who is The Last Neanderthal's narrator, declares: "It's because of their similarities to us that I can speak for them when I say that much of what you've heard isn't true." Rose offers ample evidence of Neanderthal development, along with much conjecture regarding Neanderthal inner life. Neanderthals had opposable thumbs, Rose tells us, and throbbing hearts. They also had throbbing erections: "An erect penis signalled good health," explains Rose. "It was happiness." Foreshadowed by a cautionary shadow play on the perils of incest, Girl has a fateful encounter with one such penis, one that results in her being exiled from her already diminished family unit.

Tracing Girl's trajectory from the comforts of co-habitation to a life of frightening solitude, Rose frequently comments on what she imagines are Girl's thoughts, desires and anxieties, along with a more general idea of Neanderthal philosophy and/or spirituality. Rose's description of the way Girl's unit collectively constructs a spear is followed by her assertion: "None of them could conceive of themselves as separate from the others." There is a moment when Girl wonders if a dead loved one is watching over her, and another in which the family buries one of its own near a tree, and Girl "could feel that the life from that body had transferred to the tree." Such commentaries begin to feel oppressive, not so much because of their vaguely new-agey tenor, but because they explicate rather than suggest.

Girl's life, as conjured by Rose, is flush with primal urgency. Rose's personal life, by contrast, is riddled with uncertainties and complications. Rose requires the support of major institutions both to conduct and publicize her work, and those institutions demand compromises that Rose finds difficult if not impossible to accept.

Rose's boyfriend Simon is an academic who possesses neither joie de vivre nor financial security. His initial reaction to the news of Rose's pregnancy seems pretty cool, yet he thereafter embarks on a campaign to domesticize the woman who is soon to be the mother of his child. Peppered with some truly terrible jokes ("I've got to go to Manhattan," Rose tells Simon, to which he replies, "Go to Manhattan, or drink one?"), the interaction between Rose and Simon is stiff and functional to begin with, and grows more discontented over time, eventually arriving at the thudding, subtext-free line, "You care more about that Neanderthal than you do about me."

It seems likely that any reader of The Last Neanderthal is going to care more about Rose's Neanderthal than they will about Simon. Or, for that matter, about Rose. What energy the book summons seems to stem from Cameron's obvious love of science, her arduous research, her commendable trans-species empathy and her clearly defined polemic. Such elements do not necessarily add up to captivating prose.

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The Last Neanderthal is a sort of inadvertent argument against the novel as a delivery system for ideas. I couldn't help thinking how much more compelling all of this would be were it rendered as non-fiction, or simply a different kind of novel. Cameron has stated that while a scientist is limited in the degree to which she might speculate, a novelist is in a position to allow her imagination to wander. But a novel demands a specific form and structure to suit its subject, and in the case of The Last Neanderthal's bifurcated narrative, the novelist's imagination wanders into territories that fail to enrich the bold ideas at its core.

José Teodoro is a critic and playwright

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