Neanderthal, John Darnton

St. Martin’s, 1996, 395 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96300-9

Once upon a time, in a land much like our own…

…there was a sub-genre of novels called “Lost Worlds”. Written around the turn of this century, these novels usually starred valiant explorers, battling exotic creatures to discover stunning secrets: A mini-ecological environment complete with dinosaurs! A Mysterious Island! A fortress guarded by the last Greek warriors! The Tenth lost tribe of Israel! A wonderful treasure!

Needless to say, as Earth was progressively settled and explained, lost worlds began to disappear. Who can believe, now, an amazonian plateau populated with prehistoric animals?

And yet, these novels keep their charms. Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island is still one of my favourite books, as is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. There is a quaint yet hardy spirit of adventure and exploration in these stories that is terrific for younger readers and loads of fun -in small dosage- for adults.

Neanderthal is a pure Lost World novel. As the story begins, two scientists are contacted with news of an important discovery. Their mentor is calling them back, deep in Asia. There, they find a lost race of Neanderthals. Will they be able to escape?

Now, given that Lost World novels are fun and that Neanderthal is a Lost World novel, we might logically expect Neanderthal to be a fun book.

If only things were that simple…

Neanderthal falters on several fronts, perhaps the most egregious being a completely humourless approach to the material. Lost Worlds novel should be awe-inspiring and thrilling, while remaining faintly silly. Here, Pulitzer-winning New York Times correspondent Darnton plays it with a tedious seriousness, even as he brings up such whoppers as a limited form of telepathy. (For various reasons, we eventually suspect that Darnton doesn’t only play around with the concepts of lost races, telepathy and ESP, but actually believes in them, which raises a whole new lot of problems.)

To this, we can add the usually suspects devices of the noble savages and the bloodthirsty barbarians. But whereas Doyle and Burroughs handled those with a kind of charming earnestness, Darnton’s Lost Races are more cyphers than objects of fascination.

But all of this would have been irrelevant if Darnton had delivered a thrilling novel. And he does not. Neanderthal is a stuffy bore of a “thriller”. No suspense. Very few set-pieces. Minimal implications for worldwide peace. Lesser novels would have brought back an evil Neanderthal in civilized land where it would have gone in a murderous rampage. Well, that’s what missing from this novel; a sense of fun and of pulpish excitement. Instead, we get a three-act play with three humans and a bunch of guys in monkey suits.

Which is rather sad, since Darnton has obviously put a lot of time in doing his research for Neanderthal. Well-integrated (and some no-so-well-integrated) expository passages at least give the impression of taking away something worthwhile from the novel (though with Darnton’s tendency to throw around “remote viewing”, we can legitimately doubt his credibility.)

THE EXPEDITION OF THE CENTURY UNCOVERS THE FIND OF THE MILLENNIUM! promises the back-cover blurb. CREATURES THAT POSSESS POWERS MAN CAN ONLY IMAGINE, AND THAT ARE ABOUT TO CHANGE THE FACE OF CIVILISATION FOREVER! it adds. THE MUST-READ THRILLER OF THE YEAR! is exhorts. With this kind of publicity, we’d be justified in expecting a rather more exciting thriller.

What we have, instead, is a Neanderthal that should remain extinct.

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