The Last Neanderthal

It’s hard to escape words pouring out of the mouths of others. We live in a world of words and we consume them voraciously, eating them off internet pages and spewing them back out with equal fervour.

I am exhausted by the sheer force of most people’s words.

So what struck me while reading The Last Neanderthal was the lack of dialogue. Claire Cameron’s book has two parallel and linked plots. One is about Girl, the oldest daughter in the last Neanderthal family. Her story is a sad one, marked by loss and fear. Her words are few. We have access to her thoughts, but even those are limited to survival and her environment. She feels things—deeply—but she’s far better at focussing on the present moment than anyone I know, despite adherence to excessive yoga and meditation practices and never ending recommendations to live in the now.

Girl speaks when it’s necessary. And when it’s not, she remains silent and focused. This is how she survives and even by today’s terms is highly productive.

Cameron writes: Their conversation didn’t get much further. And Girl didn’t see the need for discussion. What she believed had been passed on to her through the short generations of her family through experience, shared attention, shadow stories on the cave wall.

Kindness is shown by removing lice from family members. And again, words aren’t needed.

“Words could be empty. It was the return of the gesture that held meaning.”

The modern story arch also doesn’t waste words. There is dialogue. It is sparsely used and all of it central to the story. Rosamund Gale, is the archaeologist who discovers Girl’s skeleton. She’s pregnant and in a highly political situation with her co-workers. Through her experience, we see how words are used to obfuscate, deflect, and hurt. Words are less truthful than the actions of the people around her. Ultimately, it’s the the actions that alter things, and that reveal the truths hidden behind words and politicizing. We see the characters for who they are, not what they say.

This isn’t a new idea: we’ve all heard “Actions speak louder than words.” We’ve also heard Mark Twain’s take: “Actions speak louder than words but not nearly as often.”

What is unprecedented is the focus and the emphasis as a society we’re placing on words. Everyone works with someone who talks and talks and never gets any actual work done and is promoted anyway.

Words are convincing. We read them, we clamour to be heard. We forget to act, thinking our words are enough. Cameron’s characters are marked by action, and the strength they find to act—not talk—in adverse circumstances.

Writes Cameron: “The boy followed her and shouted, not just that word but a stream of noises and clicks and trills. There were too many words for Girl’s ears.”

I know exactly what she means.

Claire Cameron appeared in Events 56 (Out of Character) and 89 (The Sunday Brunch) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Fest.

Related reads: 

In January 2017, The New York Times published a fascinating article exploring how Neanderthals have been maligned by bad science and racism.

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