Review by Adrina Palmer
From the author of The Bear, the enthralling story of two women separated by millennia, but linked by an epic journey that will transform them both.
Step back in time with Claire Cameron’s book, ‘The Last Neanderthal,’ back hundreds of thousands of years to the time when the last prehistoric families roamed the earth. This is what Archaeologist Rosamund Gale does when she finds her latest project: a neanderthal buried next to a modern man in France. I could not imagine putting myself in the shoes, or hairy bare feet, of a family living before homes and organized speech until reading this novel. Cameron’s simple style captures the essence of an imagined lifestyle of bones whose stories are lost in layers of sediment.
Rosamund Gale, known as Rose, works with her older trainee Andy on a recent discovery of unburying the bones of a neanderthal and modern man. A precursory dig finds an ancient human interlocked with a modern human gazing into each other’s eyes for all of eternity. Rose is confident the bones will unlock the secrets of prehistoric human’s lifestyles. She puts her life on hold to focus on her obsession. From the first time her grandfather mentioned to Rose the word neanderthal, her passion blossomed into a career. The project of uncovering the lovers leaves Rose with a limited income between her project and her boyfriend Simon’s teaching job in another country. Then her timeframe for uncovering the bones becomes only a few months left of Rose’s pregnancy. With a museum pressuring Rose’s progress, the race is on to uncover the nature of the skeletons.
The story switches back and forth between Rose and the bones. Girl lives with her family around 40,000 years ago. Him is her brother, and they share a mother, called only Big Mother, with biological brother Bent. Runt is another child but not by blood. He is different, scrawny and abandoned by his original family. Big Mother rules the nest with horns on her head. At the ripe age of thirty-something, Big Mother has had many springs to learn the ropes of the world, and she commands the family with her heightened sense of smell, and a few command words her limited vocal cords can muster.
Every year when winter transforms into spring, the few surviving families trek to the river where the fish run wild for the first time of the year, providing much-needed sustenance and mating. Girl is coming to the age where she can mate and take the place of a Big Mother in another family left without a matriarch. As her thick body grows with bison meat, her menses come along with pheromones which draw her older brother Him’s attention. Drawn to each other in the cold of night, the siblings go against their mother’s warnings and mate in secret.
During a hunt for their preferred meat, bison, the family clings together as nature dwindles their numbers. With limited shelter, clothing, and food, the family is ever changing numbers under the harsh conditions. Instincts take over, and the family moves on, remembering their losses by the extra chores each person is assigned. As the group continues through the last dredges of spring to the finish line of the river, their numbers dwindle, again and again, leaving just Girl and the adopted Runt to greet the other families at the meeting place.
Now the matriarch, Girl finds herself herding the strange boy so different from her own kinfolk towards their life force. Her stomach swells with her own child as they reach the waterway. No other families are there to greet the tiny family, except for a mama bear there for the same reasons, food and mating. When Girl finds an indication of another upright walker, she heads into the wilderness again seeking companionship and the only real purpose for living the warmth of others.
Cameron focuses on presenting the prehistoric people as humans capable of everything a modern man is capable of: love, despair, needs, and wants. The story moves back and forth between the past and the present, representing both Rose and her desire to share the life she has imagined for the bones. The parallels between the contrasting characters are the bellies each woman struggle with and the experience of motherhood to come. Both women are compelling in this stunning novel focused on finding commonalities between then and now.
The only issue I have with Cameron’s book is the implications against creation as opposed to evolution. Despite the implications, the intertwining story could just as easily have been man before the flood. Cameron’s overarching desire is to share what most authors hope to share: a link between the past and the present, or an understanding of what connects humans. With a graceful flare and non-flourished style, the beauty of Cameron’s writing draws you into both tales. Leave yourself a few hours to read this two hundred and seventy page novel uninterrupted, as you will have a hard time setting the book aside for day-to-day tasks.
Available now in bookstores