May Reads: A Month of Animals and Neanderthals 


Welcome to our monthly book roundup, highlighting new and newish books that should be on your radar. This month brings Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal, an absorbing novel with a clear feminist perspective that explores the lives of a Neanderthal and the modern-day archeologist who discovers her remains, and Jess Arndt’s book of short stories, Large Animals.

As always, please share your recommendations in the comments.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

Neanderthals, our long-extinct evolutionary relatives, have haunted humans since we won the evolutionary battle of sorts, since we became, in a quite literal sense, the last man standing. In popular parlance, to be a Neanderthal is to be debased, unrefined, to disregard the very refinement that differentiates humans from our lesser cousins. In literature, too, the Neanderthal is generally treated as the other, the evolutionary waste of the Pleistocene, the era where humans would emerge and claim dominion. Perhaps the most memorable literary iteration of the Neanderthal is Jean Auel’s wonderfully kitschy classic The Clan of the Cave Bear.

It turns out that Auel’s 1980 sexy, dawn of mankind romp wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of the science of Neanderthals. Enter Claire Cameron’s latest novel, The Last Neanderthal; instead of resorting to ancient cultural stereotypes, the book takes the latest research on Neanderthals to weave the compelling and heartbreaking story of Girl who, as the title indicates, will be the last of her kind.

“If you happened on one in the woods—say, a female named Girl with a shock of red hair—it would not be by accident,” Cameron writes in the prologue. “She would have sensed you coming long before, felt curious about another upright primate, and allowed you to approach.” She imagines the interaction between a modern day human and a Neanderthal, a nice literary trick to welcome us into the story of Girl and her family—Big Mother, her brothers Him and Bent, and an adopted human boy, Runt.

The novel follows the family as they struggle to survive in a landscape that is increasingly hostile to Neanderthals because of the emergence of humans, a shift which the family does not know about, isolated as they are on their own lands. Runt is not, in their eyes, the apogee of evolution, instead, he is weak, emotional, and lacking the animal-like instincts necessary for hunting. Even so, Girl, along with her family, hope to make it to the fish run, an annual Neanderthal meeting of sorts, where the family can regroup and expand via coupling. But a series of deaths leave Runt and Girl as the last survivors of the family. Girl and Runt make it to the fish run but they find themselves alone. As the novel progresses, Girl makes a slow realization that she is the last of her kind.

Interwoven with the story of Girl, is the story of her discovery of her fossilized remains by 21st-century archeologist Rosamund Gale. Gale discovers Girl and the remains of a human positioned as though they are looking at one another in a cave in France. It’s a discovery of a lifetime for Gale who, Cameron is clear to note, is a scholar with unorthodox ideas about Neanderthals: she theorizes that humans and Neanderthals lived together, interacting both sexually and socially. “A relationship, a feeling, a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most,” Cameron’s Gale says.

The back and forth between Girl and Gale is the essential rhythm of The Last Neanderthal. Both women share threads of narratives: both are pregnant, both work through their pregnancies—sweating and toiling in the ground—both feel the weight of maternal responsibility. Here, Cameron gives the characters parallels to suggest that we really aren’t all that different from our ancestors, that the basics of the genus Homo have remained essentially unchanged. Birth is a primal state, Cameron implies, regardless of where a woman sits on the evolutionary ladder. It’s a decidedly feminist angle of storytelling and it’s particularly compelling in this context.

The book admittedly lags when it turns to Gale’s discovery, in part because the academic carries the weight of telling the reader (in this case, a funding panel stands in for the reader) the latest scientific theories on the Neanderthal. If you’re already familiar with outlines of this literature—if you know that Neanderthal DNA is in human DNA, that Neanderthals were more socially complex than initially theorized—then these chapters can seem slow. Cameron’s continual reminders that Gale’s theories on Neanderthals are controversial and avant-garde is a bit too insistent.

But where Gale’s story sometimes lags, Girl’s story of survival is the engine of The Last Neanderthal. Those chapters, which make up the bulk of the book, are creative, imaginative and smart. Cameron has created a fully developed pre-historic universe, inhabited by compelling characters like Girl. Cameron understands what we share with our distant cousins—those basic emotions, fundamental feelings—but she also has a seamless understanding of the contours of those feelings and she uses that natural empathy to incredible effect. It’s perhaps a strange thing to say about a novel that’s fundamentally about extinction, but The Last Neanderthal is a pleasure to read.

Large Animals by Jess Arndt

“Animals are only animals because they are observed,” Jess Arndt writes in her debut collection of short stories, Large Animals. Ardnt’s stories are filled with references to the natural world, including animals: weeds take over a garden, an unhappy couple is struck with a stomach parasite. But the concept of “natural,” or of nature is never easy here, instead it’s the subject of Arndt’s interrogation, and often her narrators’ uneasiness, throughout this slim volume. Large Animals is essentially a book about how to name and describe queer bodies.

The language of nature—be it floral and fauna or the “natural” way of culture—fails Ardnt’s narrators; at times, even their internal dialogue falters at the limits of language. “I’m like a … you know,” the narrator of “Been a Storm,” says during an uncomfortable roadside encounter. In another story, the narrator is consistently referred to as Jeff instead of Jess. The confusion leads to a kind of literalization of metaphor and a battle between Jeff and Jess ensues. In all of the stories, the narrator is at odds with their body and Arndt’s voice, situated somewhere between unarming realism and surrealism, captures the amorphousness of bodies that cannot conform to language; bodies that resist the cultural sense of what constitutes the natural.

In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Arndt said that Maggie Nelson (yes, Arndt’s book has the Nelson stamp of approval) described the “stories as disobedient and indifferent to form.” That’s an accurate and direct assessment of Arndt’s stories with one exception: sometimes some of the stories are a little too committed to familiar tics of MFA-style writing, a little too insistent on the workshop performance. But that’s a minor criticism for a debut writer who has otherwise written a deeply intellectual and playful collection. Large Animals establishes Arndt as a writer worth watching.

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