The Last Neanderthal / Claire Cameron
Toronto: Doubleday, c2017.
If you liked Clan of the Cave Bear but want something that is both way less wordy and which takes a more literary approach to Neanderthal culture, look no further.
Claire Cameron, author of Bear, takes on outdoor life in a different sense in her newest book. Her personal experience with being seriously outdoorsy (seen in her previous books as well) is really useful in giving a strong verisimilitude to her description of nomadic life; she understands what is involved in living on the land far more than an urban dweller like myself would even be able to imagine.
Add to that the research she's done into new theories of Neanderthal culture (with additional references to explore at the end) and you have a lot of life packed into a relatively short novel. At times there may be just a touch too much exposition but it is folded in as naturally as possible.
The story focuses on Girl and her family group: Big Mother, Him, Bent and Runt. They live on their own territory, with other family groups living elsewhere. During the time of the Fish Run, though, they'll journey down to the river where many family groups will assemble. It's during this time that new alliances are made, and this year both Girl and Him are at the age that they will want to look for mating opportunities. But unexpected tragedy forces Girl and Runt out on their own, and when they arrive at the river, it's not what they expected.
Interspersed with this engaging setting is a modern storyline featuring archaeologist Rosamund Gale. She has just discovered a potentially explosive find; a Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens skeleton facing one another in an attitude that suggests they were lovers, or at least had a meaningful relationship of some kind. Her struggle to maintain control of her dig and the funding for it, while growing increasingly cumbersome with advanced pregnancy is a less intense version of Girl's struggle for survival. And their lives mirror each other especially as they both give birth, in a physical experience that has remained the same for aeons. Cameron's explicit focus on sameness rather than difference in this narrative is touching, and I think works beautifully. The final pages of Girl's story, especially, really had an emotional effect on me.
Rosamund's modern day academic story also reminds me of Susanna Kearsley's archaeologists and academics in many of her past/present stories, particularly The Shadowy Horses, even if there isn't as much focus on romance in this book. The women in both modern stories are determined and preoccupied with how to know the daily lived experience of those they are uncovering, and they have some of the same feel, for me anyhow.
Although Girl's story is more visceral, I think that the balance between the two works well. This is an intriguing, thought-provoking take on Neanderthal history, incorporating all kinds of new research, and presenting an imagined life grounded in sensory details.