The Clan of the Cave Bear
I have long wanted to read Jean Auel’s acclaimed novel of Neanderthal society. Offered the opportunity to review the Hodder re-issue, with its strikingly handsome new cover, I accepted with pleasure. The novel opens with Ayla, the heroine, caught in the throes of a terrifying earthquake. All her family dies. She alone survives. Five years old and left to fend for herself, she wanders for days, eventually succumbing to malnutrition and thirst. On the point of death she is rescued by the medicine woman of a Neanderthal clan. Ayla is not Neanderthal and known to the Clan only as one of the Others. The Clan must decide whether to abandon Ayla or adopt her. Their leader chooses the latter, and the novel continues with Ayla’s life growing to maturity.
Along the way, there are traumatic, harrowing events in Ayla’s life: events described with such power, you are left aching with compassion for an outsider, forced by circumstance, to live in an unfamiliar environment. It is to Auel’s credit that the Clan are characterised with great sympathy. The medicine woman, Clan Leader and Clan magician are sensitive, well-rounded characters that you care about. In dramatic contrast, Broud, heir apparent to the Clan Leader Brun, is one of the most hateful characters I’ve encountered in fiction.
The problem with the novel is its length. It is quite simply far too long. The narrative is inundated with repetitive irritating details, one instance of such being the numerous descriptive passages detailing herbs and all their uses. Yet overall I found much to delight, with many nuances lingering long after the pages closed. Neanderthals, in Auel’s vision, were not uncivilised brutes. They were complex, orderly and ultimately doomed to extinction. This is a masterpiece, albeit flawed. Well worth reading.