Posted on September 11, 2015
33. ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’ by Jean M. Auel
I grew up looking at the spines of Auel’s Earth’s Children series on my parents’ bookshelves. Both Mum and Dad read them and loved them, but they didn’t actively encourage me to do the same – from their sly looks I came to understand that there was a certain amount of ‘raciness’ in the books that meant I wasn’t yet old enough to pick them up. So I waited and more or less forgot about them until this year, when I finally decided to see what it was about this physically enormous series of books that so captivated my parents.
(I’ve borrowed the actual copy that has been in my parents’ house forever, hence why it’s a little battered.)
The book opens with Ayla, a five year old Cro-Magnon girl (a European early modern human, alive around 40,000 years ago). When an earthquake destroys her village and everyone she knows, she is forced to wander off into the wilderness in a desperate attempt to survive. She is attacked by a cave lion and escapes but, severely weakened, she collapses, close to the brink of death. Soon after she is found by a clan of Neanderthals (another species of early human that went extinct roughly 40,000 years ago), who are searching for a new cave to live in after their last home was destroyed by the earthquake. The tribal leader, Brun, allows his medicine woman, Iza, to keep the child. What follows is a tale of power struggles and personality clashes as Ayla attempts to find her place in a clan from which she is fundamentally different.
This is an absolutely brilliant premise for a book and there’s certainly plenty to work with here over the course of a long series (which Earth’s Children is). All the characters are well developed and every action has consequences. Auel does particularly well at describing the source of the feud between Broud (Brun’s son) and Ayla. From the very beginning tiny things about Ayla bother Broud, even when they are both small children, and these minor disagreements escalate into a much more profound dislike that follows them into adulthood. This feud has a significant impact on the plot (especially the ending) and it’s great to see a relationship charted so carefully and from so early on.
For me, it’s Ayla’s role as a woman that is particularly fascinating in Clan of the Cave Bear. We do not see any of her early life with her own people, so we don’t know how women behave in her native society, but we do learn that the Neanderthals have very set ideas about gender roles. Only men are hunters – it is their responsibility to kill animals and provide for the women who live at their hearth. Women can be gatherers and cooks, they can make tools but they cannot make (or even touch) weapons. A tribe can have a medicine woman who knows spiritual magic, but the most significant spiritual ceremonies are reserved for men only. A woman who steps outside of her role, or any clan member who commits a serious crime, can be punished with the Death Curse: they are declared dead by the leader and the tribe mourns for them, even if they have not died. The cursed one is seen as a ghost and it eventually becomes too painful for them to stay with the tribe (who refuse to look at them or acknowledge their presence), so they go off alone and die. Suffice it to say, Ayla tests the very limits of the tribe’s rules about what a woman is allowed to do and how she is allowed to act, and she often comes a cropper of her own determination.
Overall, this book was less action-packed than I was expecting. It was quite slow to start and I thought it didn’t really get going until the second half, but that’s not to say the first half was boring. Auel has clearly done loads of research about these ancient people, and it’s a treat to learn so much about their lives, from hunting and cooking, to religion and sex, to the changing landscape in which they lived. There were laugh out loud moments, gasp out loud moments and moments of delicious rebellion. I found The Clan of the Cave Bear kept me interested for all of its nearly 500 pages, and I have a feeling this series is just going to get better and better.
“The land was undeniably rich, and man only an insignificant fraction of the multifarious life that lived and died in that cold, ancient Eden.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.