In Claire Cameron’s third novel, twinned narratives develop out of the 2010 discovery of two fossilized skeletons – a female Neanderthal and a male Homo sapiens – locked in what appears to be an embrace. The archaeological find rocked previously held beliefs, pointing as it did to a shared intimacy between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, rather than a forced erasure of the former species.
Using this as a catalyst, Cameron explores the how and the why of species survival through two characters: Girl, a Neanderthal just coming of age, and Rosamund (Rose) Gale, the archaeologist who uncovers her bones some 40,000 years later. The novel teases the reader to see parallels in the lives of Girl and Rose via their respective experiences with caregiving, agency, loneliness, motherhood, and survival. While Girl’s story flourishes, Cameron struggles to give the contemporary story strand convincing emotional power, making for a rather uneven book.
Cameron has spun narratives out of true events before: her best-selling 2014 novel, The Bear, drew its inspiration from a mauling in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. As characters, both the seven-year-old protagonist of The Bear and Girl are nearly non-verbal, their stories told through description and plot rather than dialogue. In The Last Neanderthal, Girl and her family hunt for bison, fight against death and disease, and navigate base needs for warmth, sex, shelter, and safety. Early on, Girl becomes pregnant, but the extreme circumstances of her existence render this aspect of the story almost secondary. Her transition from budding woman to sole survivor of her family is the heart of the novel and is expressed – for the most part convincingly – through vivid action.
Rose is also pregnant; her pregnancy, however, is the main focus of her present-day plot strand. Tropes of career versus motherhood overdetermine each scene in which she is featured: her husband’s underemployment, her combative relationship with the museum that supports her, her meltdown in an Ikea superstore. The pregnancy, and her responses to it, threatens her ability to see the archaeological project through to completion. It doesn’t help that the dialogue between Rose and various supporting characters (her male workmate, her husband, and her childless rival colleague) is often awkward, and used simply to forward the pregnancy aspect of the story. In contrast to Girl’s emotional peaks, Rose’s story lacks gravitas, so when the birth scene finally happens, it is hard to care.
Cameron draws on tactics from Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, as well as movies like Quest for Fire, to build interest in the bonds between Neanderthals and modern humans. But absent the genuine curiosity in that prehistoric milieu or any true stakes of its own, the parts of Rose’s narrative not devoted to her impending motherhood take on the aspect of a science and information dump, existing solely to provide support material for the reader’s investment in Girl’s world. We can feel Cameron’s passion for the subject matter, but by artificially bifurcating her story, the author is less successful in inducing readers to be consistently moved.