Neands by Dan Salmon
The face of a gorilla on the cover, wearing glasses and covered in geometric lines, fixing us with a steady stare, doesn’t seem too threatening. But, as you will learn if you pick up this book, the problem is not monkeys acting like human but humans acting like monkeys… or more specifically, Neanderthals.
These are not stone age Neanderthals, but the product of a radical transformation. All the Neanderthals of the modern day once were humans, but as soon as a recessive gene is triggered, everything that made them human drops away and they become a hairy, smelly bully.
Not only are Neanderthals aggressive, but it turns out that they don’t really like humans. And what is the virus that triggers the gene that turns people into Neanderthals? That is a very good question, and it is one that fourteen-year-old Charlie, the son of a murdered scientist who was researching this very problem, is desperate to find the answer to. Not only for the world at large, but for his own survival.
Charlie notices as his friends start changing around him, and when his mum vanishes too, he has to learn to survive on his own. The opening chapters carry all the hallmarks of a human Apocalypse. The new Neanderthals carry on just like humans – except that they are not. They smell bad, they’re hairy, they’re aggressive, and weirdly religious. And as Charlie finds out, going to school with them, where books are thrown in the bin and the only science taught is how to get bigger muscles, is anything but fun. He is taken in by his mum’s friend and her husband, both of them also scientists, who have already rescued two girls Charlie’s age. The trio tries to ‘pass’ at their school by weaving Neanderthal hair into their shirts and hiding in trees, while visiting secret laboratories and planning their escape. The worst is the fear that they might change too.
Neands is set in Auckland, and the idea of a mysterious virus spreading across the country is certainly relevant in 2020. The book conveys a sense of the futuristic, while also being here and now, much like Brian Falkner’s Tomorrow Code and Zizou Corder’s Lionboy. Teens who like dystopia, sci fi and adventure will find something of all three in its pages.
The author is also a screen writer, and this shows in the inventive way that the story is pieced together with chat room conversations, jotted notes, and newspaper clippings between the chapters. These add another dimension to the story, making the world in which it is set feel very concrete.
It is very much a coming of age story – or of coming of age too quickly. Charlie and his friends must face the personal loss of family and friends, the loss of their society as they know it, and an uncertain future, all while the normal emotions of teendom intervene.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
OneTree House, RRP $24