The Spirit and the Skull is a Paleolithic murder mystery that unfolds into something deeper and wider. Raven is the aging Spirit Man of a tribe that calls themselves the People. They are on a journey to find better, warmer lands, being guided by the spirit of the Earth Mother. Raven is a pragmatist. He’s not certain he even believes in the Spirits, but maintains the pretense as a means of survival. But when one of the leaders of the tribe is found murdered, Raven finds himself forced to find the culprit, and is confronted by a vision of a strange man holding his skull.
Any depiction of Paleolithic is necessarily a matter of poetic license. Hayes admits to several liberal interpretations of evidence. Where the novel shines, however, is in capturing the mood of an arctic existence. The landscape is lovingly and beautifully described. This is a dangerous and awe-inspiring world and Hayes perfectly conveys how naturally it would be to populate it with spirits and wonders.
The murder mystery itself is not particularly gripping, but in a relatively short novel exploring as many ideas as this is, the mystery is the most mundane and least interesting element. Far more fascinating is the disturbing visions Raven has, of strange people picking at his bones in the distant future. This eventually takes the novel into a discussion of history and cultural forces, and a surprisingly strident environmentalist message.
The Spirit and the Skull is a lyrical depiction of Paleolithic life and the untouched landscape. Hayes’s reach perhaps exceeded his grasp, but it remains ambitious and well worth a read.
**Received copy from NetGalley for Review