Book Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel“The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to towards the rocky beach at the bend in the small river.  It didn’t occur to her to look back.  Nothing in her experience ever gave her reason to doubt the shelter and those within it would be there when she returned…”

So begins the first in the Earth’s Children® series of seven novels.  It’s been a bestselling series, but somehow I’ve only discovered it just prior to the release of the final instalment in March 2011.  I was intrigued by the prehistoric setting (I lap up historical novels like whipped cream) and I wanted to know more.

I can’t bear to start a series in the middle, never mind the end, so I decided to try the first book, first published in 1980.  The novel is about a Neanderthal tribe which takes in an orphaned child.  The child is not of their clan; she’s not even of their race.  Ayla is one of the Others, and she is tall, blonde and blue-eyed, standing out from everyone around her and deemed ugly next to their short, dark and hairy bodies.  Her personality is also vastly different from theirs: she shocks them by wanting to hunt with the men, talking too much and being able to count.  Luckily she is keen to learn their ways, and so step by step we and Ayla are initiated into the clan’s way of life.

The novel explores Neanderthal behaviour and an Ice Age environment in some detail.  We find out about edible plants, herbal remedies, hunting strategies, religious ceremonies, and much more.  Of course, a lot of the time it’s necessary for Auel to speculate about what these Neanderthal people really did, thought, used and believed.  The novel might look, for example, at the way a certain type of plant can be used to add flavour to food, but anthropologists can never be completely sure whether this would actually have been used in that way; or we might find a description of a primitive tool which dates back to this time period, but the writer can only imagine how this would really have been used in practice.

Having said that, the author’s biography at the start of the novel makes it clear that Auel has been praised by leading scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists for the extent and accuracy of her research.  While it’s obviously important to take any historical novel with a large pinch of salt, it’s fascinating to speculate and to be taken on an imaginative journey through this writer’s version of a primitive world.  She really does bring her characters to life and allows us to see them not as a stupid, underdeveloped sub-species, but simply as a different branch of the same ancestral tree we have all come from.

For me, this book was an absolute page-turner.  I loved uncovering the knowledge concealed within the pages.  We are treated to an in-depth exploration of daily life through the seasons and at various points in the clan members’ life cycles.  Yet the plot is so enthralling that you don’t even realise that this is a history, biology and psychology lesson all rolled into one.  You are literally unable to predict what could possibly happen next: you must simply keep reading.

There are a few disturbing scenes.  They are, of course, designed to shock, yet they are often described to us in a matter-of-fact way, asking us to accept that what is repellent to a modern reader would have been seen as perfectly normal in a different time.  For example, one of the clan males, Broud, hates Ayla intensely, but as the men are given free reign to treat the women as they like, both verbally and physically, things occasionally get a bit nasty.  Sometimes Ayla triumphs over his pettiness, sometimes Brun succeeds in doing her damage; and when this happens, the others turn a blind eye to his behaviour.

But it’s worth overcoming a grimace or two and reading on.  If the second book in the series, The Valley of Horses, is anything like as addictive to read as this one, then I want it!  Truly indulgent reading, hand in hand with the smug satisfaction of gaining a better understanding of prehistoric Europe’s people.

You can find out more about the Earth’s Children® series here and read an excerpt of the final book: The Land of Painted Caves.

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