The premise of Virve Sammalkorpi “Children of the Cave” is tantalizingly dark: in 1819 Iax Agolasky, a young assistant to a notable French explorer, travels on an archaeological expedition to rural Russia where they discover a cave inhabited by children with animal traits. The story plays out partly as a thriller and partly as a psychological study about what makes us human. It's presented as a series of journal fragments by Iax which chart developments in their discoveries and recount dramatic events in the camp. This frames the story like an artefact and there’s something pleasingly old fashioned about this style of narrative. Like in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” we’re at a remove from the central character himself so it leaves the reader wondering what’s real and what’s a figment of Iax’s troubled mind. Iax finds himself torn between commitment to their scientific study and his desire to connect with and protect the children while also ruminating about his own upbringing in Russia. Like many expeditions into the wild, the results reveal more about the explorers than they do about the subjects they go to study.
It’s interesting how the story is set in a time which predates Darwin’s revolutionary publications. The character of the French explorer Professor Jean Moltique sketches out ideas that these children with animal traits might be the result of some form of metamorphosis. But they also might suggest a sudden reversal of evolution. I’ve read some other novels like Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God” which play with ideas like this as a way of suggesting that our civilization might be regressing rather than developing over time. Iax’s observations about the nature and practices of their crew of explorers shows them to be in many ways more bestial than the strange animal-like beings in the cave. As such, he finds himself in a crisis about where he truly belongs and longing for a universal truth to live by: “I dream not so much of solving the mystery of life as of the immortality of ideas.”
The novel slides into the hallucinatory as Iax’s journals become less documentary and more about his strained situation. The fragmentary nature of this narrative means it becomes confusing at times to understand what’s happening in this expedition which lasts around four years. It makes it creepy and suspenseful in parts, but sometimes this just felt frustrating. But overall I enjoyed the way this story teases with a lot of questions about the true nature of the children and what happens to them. It’s also poignant how the story looks at what it means to be an outsider and questions why society frequently ostracises those who are different.