23/01/2008

The Clan of the Cave Bear (by Jean M Auel)

I had never heard of Jean M Auel, or the 'Earth's Children' series, until a friend said she had recently re-read the whole series, and found them gripping. I'm always pleased to find a new writer, so I spent a little Christmas money on ordering the first in the series.

'The Clan of the Cave Bear' is about Ayla, who we first meet at five years old, a contented and secure child who loves to swim. Then she loses her entire family in an earthquake, and wanders a long way before she finds other people.

I should mention that the book is set about thirty-five thousand years ago, in central Europe around the time of an ice age. Ayla manages to fend for herself for a few days, and even escape a vicious cave lion, before she is discovered by a passing tribe of Neanderthal. Most want to ignore her - she looks totally different from them, and is only a girl anyway - but the medicine woman, Iza, wants to adopt her.

People matured rapidly in prehistoric times, apparently. Iza is twenty, and expecting her first baby. She is considered very old to be doing so. Most of the girls develop into women at the age of about eight, and have their first babies when they are nine or ten. Iza's brothers are older still: Brun is the leader of the clan, and the other brother is Mog-ur, a kind of pagan priest. Mog-ur is over thirty, so is a venerable old age, and riddled with arthritis.

Ayla doesn't just look different with her long limbs and fair hair, she speaks a different language that's more verbal than the clan's gesture-oriented speech with few sounds. She comes from a different society, where girls run and jump and laugh, and are not necessarily totally obedient in servitude to their men.

Still, Ayla quickly proves her intelligence and makes her way into the hearts of both Iza and Mog-ur. She has quick aptitude for medicine, and a deep-seated need to help anyone in pain, or injured in any way. Unfortunately, she finds it hard to behave as the Clan women are supposed to, questioning all their traditional ways, showing insolence to Brun's rather arrogant son, and (worst of all) deciding that she would like to learn to use a sling. Weapons of any sort are completely forbidden to Clan women, on pain of death.

So there's plenty of conflict, and a very good story as Ayla slowly matures and adapts, faces many battles, and begins to discover her destiny. The writing is powerful and believable, clearly very well researched. For perhaps the first time, I found myself with some inkling of what life might have been like in prehistoric times.

However...

I found 'The Clan of the Cave Bear' over-long. I don't have a problem with lengthy books in general - this has nearly 600 pages, and I've read and enjoyed many longer novels. But this one, in my view, could have done with some serious editing. There were pages and pages devoted to fine detail of how the expert craftsmen of the Clan made their flint knives and spears, and what different furs were used for. There was also exensive information about the many plants and herbs that were used in medicine, which Ayla had to collect and learn about. Perhaps these would be of interest to more practical folk, but I found myself skimming rather large chunks of the book every so often, to get to the interesting people-related sections.

As for the people, I thought the main characters were well-developed. I found myself relating somewhat to Ayla as she grew up, although I never quite sorted out in my mind several of the less significant members of the Clan, some of whom had very similar names. It didn't matter over-much, and I didn't care sufficiently to go back and make myself a list of who was whom, or their various relationships.

On the other hand, I wasn't emotionally moved at any point, even when Ayla or her loved ones suffered bereavement.

My other personal gripe with the book is that it was rather over-violent in places. Killing was, no doubt, a fact of everyday life for people of this era, but I didn't want to read quite so much about it. There was also some rather extreme violence - an important part of the plot in one sense, as Ayla makes an implacable enemy out of Brun's son, but again I skimmed rather a lot of the detail of the scenes between them. Towards the end of the book there were also two very unpleasantly gory scenes, both of which I skimmed... and then found I had missed something of significance in the story, so had to go back and try to find it, while ignoring the majority of the scene.

On the plus side, there are fascinating insights into the mindsets that people of this era might have had. The Clan have animal 'totems' - sort of spirit guardian angels - and some intriguing theories about how babies are made. They are naturally racist, since they spend no time with those outside their Clan, and also stuck in the traditions of the past, bound up with 'memories' which they are born with, like instincts. And, far from being primitive or chaotic, their lives are very ordered, bound with complex rites and rituals.

I gather 'The Clan of the Cave Bear' is used as a text book in some college and high school classes; be warned, if you have younger children, however, that there is one quite explicit scene, and very open matter-of-fact discussion of men 'relieving themslves' with women.

All in all, I'm glad I read this book. By the time I was half-way through, I found it hard to put down, and read far too late last night, waiting for one situation to be resolved. I'd recommend it for anyone wondering what life might have been like in prehistoric times, particularly if you like practical details and information in novels.

There are at least four sequels to this, but despite quite a cliff-hanger ending, I don't think I shall be ordering any of them.

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