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Picturing a World

Last Neanderthal

Near the beginning of Kindred, Rebecca Wray Sykes quotes such a good passage from Claire Cameron's novel, The Last Neanderthal, that it was the next book I took up—and then read in three gulps. It's one of those two-stranded novels in which a present-day scholar investigates a topic, while historical fiction dramatizes what the scholar will (or won't) fully uncover by the end. In this case, in one story line, an archeologist makes an intriguing discovery. In the other, we live and breathe with Girl, a Neanderthal. It's a very good novel, one that I would recommend to anyone who liked The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish or A. S. Byatt's Possession.

Or anyone seriously interested in imagining the lives of prehistoric people—maybe more along the lines of Elizabeth Thomas Marshall's Reindeer Moon than Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear. Or anyone interested in becoming immersed in what David Abrams calls Becoming Animal in the more-than-human world, for Cameron immerses Girl in a sentient world of other animals and moving elements in the landscape.
For the special focus of this blog, moreover, an interview with Cameron on researching historical fiction brings out how an image can spark creativity. A photograph of the so-called Lovers of Valdaro stayed with her; and when she had the idea of placing two skeletons—one homo sapiens, the other Neanderthal—in the same grave like them, the story took on life for her. Two lessons for us all: First, when an image prompts a strong response or a nagging itch, hold onto it! It may just be the necessary key to unlock an animating idea. And, second, don't be afraid to change it once it's yours.

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