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The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

BOTTOM LINE: The historical sections are fantastic; the modern ones less so.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 25 April 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“40,000 years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard winter, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate.

But the unforgiving landscape takes its toll, and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling of unknown origin. As Girl and Runt face the coming winter storms, Girl realizes she has one final chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself.

In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.

Haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving, The Last Neanderthal asks us to reconsider all we think we know about what it means to be human.”

My Thoughts: When considering requesting a copy of The Last Neanderthal for reviewing, in true Michelle fashion I skimmed the synopsis, said this sounds interesting, and hit the Request button. There is always danger to that process, and I have been caught more than once reading something on which I would have passed had I more closely read the synopsis. In the case of Claire Cameron‘s novel, it worked. While it was not what I expected it to be, I was still impressed with the story she tells, especially about the Neanderthal woman.

The Last Neanderthal is a tale of two women. What is surprising is how different your reactions are to each woman, even though their circumstances are similar. Girl is a remarkable survivor, intent on preserving her family and its traditions but not afraid to break from those traditions as required. She is surprisingly independent but still puts the needs of her family ahead of her own. The hardships she endures would break most people, but she seems to thrive on them. She is intelligent, thoughtful, self-aware, and resilient.

Rosamund is equally intelligent, self-aware, resilient, and thoughtful, but she is not quite as enjoyable a character as Girl. Perhaps it is because Rosamund has the ability to speak, whereas Girl cannot. Girl must rely on facial cues, body language, and hand signals to express her thoughts, wishes, and demands. This means she must weigh her thoughts before expressing them to determine just what she wants to “say.” There is a deliberate carefulness to her actions which prevents her from acting out in anger or saying something she does not intend to say. Rosamund is not bound by such constraints, and often her words come out shrill and harsh. While Rosamund is just trying to protect what is hers and live her own life, her responses to potential threats are much more strident and discomfiting, making her almost unlikable.

Ms. Cameron develops a vibrant story for Girl and her Neanderthal family. In fact, they virtually come alive. No matter that most of how they shared dreams, what they thought, and what they felt is pure speculation, Ms. Cameron bridges the gap between theory and fiction to create a family that is no different than you or me in all the ways that matter. The differences, as one would expect because they are a different species after all, are intriguing and are so well incorporated into the novel that one wonders if they could possibly have existed. They also give rise to questions about certain abilities that did not carry over between the species. The fact that there is no way to prove Ms. Cameron correct is disappointing but adds a little spice to her interpretation of Neanderthal communication and their use of their senses.

The scenes in which Rosamund is the focus are drab in comparison to those with Girl. Some of this has to do with the fact that Rosamund is not nearly as sympathetic a character as Girl; her lack of soft skills may make her formidable in the field but do nothing to endear her to readers. It also has to do with familiarity. There have been many books written about women in traditionally male-held careers who struggle to keep their position/authority/prestige when faced with pending motherhood, and Rosamund’s story does not provide any new insight into that perpetual battle. My general dislike of Rosamund and her reactions to her situation had me skimming those sections in order to get back to Girl and her very unique predicaments.

Because of this disconnect between Rosamund and the reader, it is difficult to wholly endorse The Last Neanderthal. I wanted so much more of Girl and her story and much less of Rosamund and hers. The book is entitled The Last Neanderthal after all, so not only are the modern-day sections jarring, they are almost unwanted. Girl and her family are so well-developed and so interesting, they are strong enough to hold forth over an entire novel. Unfortunately, Ms. Cameron did not agree.

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