Tag Archives: Claire Cameron

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

The orthodox version was that Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals, and wiped them out as a result. But this interpretation is now being challenged, not least because modern humans have DNA that can be traced back to Neanderthals. The presence of this DNA can only have happened through sexual encounters, consensual or forced. The view of aggressive encounters between Homo sapiens and other human subspecies must be reviewed. Claire Cameron takes up this issue, imagines the lived experiences of Neanderthal people and suggests a way in which the DNA became mixed.

I declare a connection here: I knew Claire’s husband when he was a PhD student in London. I believe their older child heard him read his thesis aloud as a newborn baby. And later I was fortunate to meet Claire in Toronto.

The story

There are two strands to this novel. In the present day Rose, an archaeologist, is working in some caves in the South of France where she has discovered in the same strata a skeleton of Homo sapiens alongside, even in an embrace with, a Neanderthal skeleton. Rose is developing a new theory about the relations between the last of the Neanderthals and the prehistory of modern humans. Her discovery will help shape her theory. But there is a problem, Rose is pregnant and fiercely protective of the dig. Time is running out.

The other thread of this novel follows Girl, the last Neanderthal of the title. Time is running out for Girl too. Her family are wiped out by circumstances, despite their intimate knowledge of their world and their skills, tools and craft that have helped them survive in the past.

Above all they have had their family relationship to sustain them. This is what Girl thinks of as ‘warm’ and she will miss it later.

It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.

When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle, the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm. (9)

Girl’s family is already small, when her brother Bent is killed in a hunting accident and then she is banished by Big Mother for her sexual relationship with Him, who is at least her half brother. The weakened family, Him, Runt and Big Mother are attacked by a wild animal and the two adults are killed. Girl rescues Runt, and takes over as Big Mother of this much reduced family, keeping the two of them alive during the winter, travelling to the annual meet of the tribes – the Big Fish. Attendance has been reducing over the years and this year they find that they are alone. Runt discovers some signs on a tree and becomes excited and runs off. On her own, Girl gives birth but the baby does not survive. She emerges in spring, very weakened, as likely to be preyed upon as to catch any meat.

There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)

She finds Runt again and their reunion is the start of a new life for Girl.

Rose meanwhile gives birth, despite assuming it will hardly put her off her professional stride, and faces the difficulties of being a new mother. She must learn some of the visceral lessons of the Neanderthal’s lives and learn how to depend upon others.

The traditional view of Neanderthals as primitive and violent and of modern humans as sophisticated and able to overcome all physical limitations is challenged by this novel.

Reading this book

I already knew that Claire writes tense and frightening stories. The Last Neanderthal is Claire’s third published novel. Both her previous books are almost unbearable to read. Her second, The Bear, was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2014. The reader follows two small children whose parents have been killed by a bear in the wild areas of Canada. I found it almost impossible to read and thought it was great. You can read my review here.

In The Last Neanderthal, Claire has imagined the world according to Girl: her relationships, how she learns from her family, and especially from Big Mother; how she and her family communicate with limited language and other forms of communication; how she and her family make and use tools and every bit they can of the animals they kill. How she can read her environment, through smell, through feeling the air and through noticing other signs in her area.

One function of literature is to take us to worlds we would not otherwise experience. The reader is immersed in this brilliant and imaginative recreation of the lives of the last Neanderthal peoples.

And especially …

I particularly like the revision of the history of ‘man’ which traditionally suggests that the males of the species fought each other and the superior brains of the modern human succeeded in obliterating the brawn of the more primitive Neanderthal. Here is an alternative, with as much going for it as Elaine Morgan had in The Descent of Woman (1972).

Perhaps the extinction of Neanderthals was not due to aggression, but circumstances that did not favour the small family groups. Perhaps there were friendly relations between the different groups, even intimate relations, partnerships. Perhaps the skills and knowledge of the Neanderthals proved essential to the less hairy hominids. Perhaps we should honour the Big Mothers of our shared past.

The Last Neanderthal is an exhilarating read and an imaginative tour de force.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron (2017) Little, Brown & Co 277pp

Footnote: when I searched for illustrations for this review apart from the many skulls, the pictures of reconstructed Neanderthal people were overwhelmingly of men.

Drawing credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

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You will understand my title even if you don’t know what a hashtag is (a twitter thing) or have never heard that 2014 is the year of reading women. It started when Joanna Walsh, writer and illustrator, decided to call 2014 ‘the year of reading women’ and sent Christmas cards listing 250 names to encourage recipients if not to read women exclusively at least to look up some of the named writers. From this #readwomen2014 grew. She wrote on the Guardian blog about it: Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?

100 BookshelfI’m not one of those who have decided to only read women writers, but I do want to do my bit to encourage people to read women, especially in the face of fewer women getting published, fewer women’s books being reviewed, and fewer women reviewers. (See the VIDA statistics for the record of different publications, aka the hall of shame). And there are days at a certain literary festival where there are no women featured at all. We need #readwomen2014.

Some reviewers, prompted by #readwomen2014 decided to read, and therefore review, only books by women in 2014. An American journal, Critical Flame, decided to go one step further and dedicate 2014 to women writers and writers of colour. This kind of action challenges the idea that white males set the standard and are the default position for how the world is to be seen in fiction: through the male consciousness. It encourages diversity.

It’s an attractive idea – expanding reading horizons. You could look at the gender balance of your recent reading*. Or of the books on your shelves. Or of the books in your local library. You could ask yourself how any imbalance has come about? How much is it to do with how you find out about books?

Last week I heard about a newly established mixed reading group, who picked their books for the first year, and not one of them was by a woman. And no one present had noticed.

83 BWPFF logo biggerSo in the spirit of #readwomen2014, and because this is my 100th blogpost, and because the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 will be announced this week, I am using my blog to wholeheartedly recommend reading more fiction by women (and, yes, to split an infinitive or two!). So here’s some suggestions from Bookword blog, with links to the posts.

Everything on my older women in fiction theme is by women. You can find these by clicking on the category link on the right. My review of Margaret Laurence The Stone Angel has been consistently one of my most read posts for over a year.

Elizabeth Taylor – novels and short stories (link to reviews by clicking on the category link).E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Bowen – In the Heat of the Day.

Claire Cameron – The Bear (longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize).

Ruth Ozeki – Tale for the Time Being.

Jean Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight.

Ann Tyler – almost anything by her, and I reviewed The Accidental Tourist.

Carolyn Heilbrun – Writing a Woman’s Life for some non-fiction.

musselfeast_web_0_220_330Foreign fiction by women should not be ignored either. Try The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch. It has just been given a special mention at this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

And Tove Jansson – The Summer Book.

*I checked my reading record over 12 months and it is 70/30 in favour of women. Perhaps I need to read more male writers.


More about #readwomen2014 in Guardian article by Alison Flood.

And for an excoriating post about the label ‘women’s fiction’ see Joanne Harris’s blog Capitalize This.


So: will your next book be written by a woman? Tell us one of your recommended reads by a woman.


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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

The Bear by Claire Cameron and more on the Baileys Women’s Prize

We know the bear attacks the family. We know this from the publicity, the blurb and from the Author’s Note which briefly retells the events of October 1991 when a couple who had pitched their tent on Bates Island in Alonquin Park, Canada, were attacked and partially eaten by a black bear. The author had worked as a summer camp counsellor in Alonquin Park around the time of the attack. She tells us,

The Bear is based on my memories and research of this bear attack. I added the children.

We know, too that the children will survive. (No novelist could kill children aged 5 and 2 and be longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.) So the tension of the story is not in the question of whether the children will make it, but how they will manage this.

98 The BearIt took me a long time to read this novel because I found that I could only read a chapter at a time, so powerful was the emotional force of the tale being told by Anna. Each chapter was quite short and required a little work to turn the child’s description into a sense of what might be happening. This made it especially vivid.

Here’s how it begins:

I can hear the air going in and out of my brother’s nose. I am awake. He is two years old and almost three and he bugs me lots of times because I am five years old and soon I will be six but it is warm sleeping next to him. I call him Stick. He always falls asleep before me and I listen to the air of his nose. I can hear my parents’ voices. They are further away than I can reach and whispering because they think I can’t hear. I let out a squeak to let Mummy know I am awake and she says, ‘We’re right here’ from too far away. I squeak again and the zipper undoes and I can see the sky in the crack. Her cool hand brushes my hair and her fingers touch my cheek. ‘Sssh, Anna,’ she says, and the sky zips away again. When I am inside the tent the outside is far away. (p3)

Here is a child who already has fears. And we must follow her through a bear attack and an escape with responsibility for her brother. And we also know, from this first paragraph, that Anna is a loved child, and one who feels safe in contact with her family. How will she survive when they are not there to support her?

Even before this question has much time to form we are into the chaos of the bear attack, the stowing of the children so that they survive and their escape hours later to find ‘mess mess mess’. The details of the mess leave the reader in no doubt about the horror that has taken place.

Anna proves very resourceful, protecting her brother and herself from further attack, and managing to defeat the real and imagined dangers of the lakeshore. She achieves much of this following the guidance that her parents established, and by remembering what her parents had done, or told her to do in the past. Anna’s thoughts repeatedly return to the importance of being more than one, even if it is only to be two with her little brother. So when she loses her brother we know she is in for a dark time.

I call him and he doesn’t say anything back. I wait and I think he will come and he doesn’t come. I feel a big cry in my eyes and my stomach goes around. ‘Stick!’ I yell again and no one answers me. I am one. (p136-7)

98 Claire CameronThis is a writer who knows children and the fears of parenthood. She is able to convey the emotions that Anna is not yet old enough to name through the physical symptoms. It is one of the major achievements of this novel. Another is that it celebrates the voice of the child, and demonstrates the importance of paying attention to what children say. What does a child understand, what are they capable of, how can they articulate what they have experienced?

A particularly telling creation is the crayon lady, who appears in the hospital after the children have been rescued. Anna is reluctant to draw Mummy as she last saw her on the island, but because she likes to please she tries to draw something. Eventually Anna takes the red crayon, prompted by the crayon lady’s.

She hands me the red.

There is a lot of red left and surprise because so much is on the lady’s mouth and I wish she would go away so I want to take her red. I put it in my fist like a baby holds a crayon and I start to press hard and make the paper go as red as I can and all over the place. … I don’t like the lady and I hope she feels sad because I used her red and I look at her to see. She is looking at the picture and she has one hand on her chest and one on her mouth and she says, ‘Oh, we’ll need to work that through.’ (p168)

This works in several different ways, not least because this child will indeed have much to work through. But Anna is also capable of rejecting the well-intentioned but mistaken assumptions of the therapist. As readers, we know what she has witnessed, but the crayon lady holds on to her preconceived ideas.

Through the same voice, we pick up Anna’s ambivalent feelings about her younger brother, as well as her ignorance of the danger they had endured.

The novel celebrates the resourcefulness of young children, and the importance of their voice.

And here’s a link to a video clip of Claire talking about the book on You Tube.

98 Line PainterI decided to read this book because I met Claire in Toronto. But I am very pleased to recommend it, and also her first book: The Line Painter.

The Bear is a very unsettling book, and one that deserves its place on the longlist of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. I was sorry it didn’t make it through to the shortlist, but the novels that did are as follows:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
  • Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
  • Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 4th June.

My reading group will be reading A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing next and has also put The Bear on its list.

Have you read any of these? Have you read The Bear? What were your responses?


Author photo borrowed from ifoa website (International Festival of Authors).

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A Little Reading on International Women’s Day

Here’s a little something for International Women’s Day: Saturday 8th March 2014. It’s a good day for mulling over the longlist for the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 (formerly Orange Prize for Fiction).

83.BWPFF logo

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam
  • Suzanne Berne – The Dogs of Littlefield
  • Fatima Bhutto – The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
  • Claire Cameron – The Bear
  • Lea Carpenter – Eleven Days
  • M.J. Carter – The Strangler Vine
  • Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries
  • Deborah Kay Davies – Reasons She Goes to the Woods
  • Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of All Things
  • Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
  • Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
  • Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
  • Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
  • Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English
  • Anna Quindlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs
  • Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
  • Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

20 titles. Have you read any of the longlist yet? I’ve read one and a half, so lots to consider for future reading. Let’s hear it for the newcomers on the list: six are first novels and seven are second novels. And I’m keen to read Canadian novelist Clair Cameron’s The Bear. She wrote The Line Painter. Which books will make it to the shortlist on April 7th? Doesn’t this list make you proud of women’s writing?

83 WPFF bookpile

These were the predictions of the blogger Farm Lane Books. Didn’t she do well?

And it’s a good day for women readers because Womankind and Bloomsbury have teamed up to make International Women’s Day Book List.  There are 10 books on the list and I’ve only heard of one of them. But they all look very interesting. Okay, yet more for the tbr pile.

imagesAnd check it out: the twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 is going well. No surprise given the content of this blogpost.


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