Title: The Clan of the Cave Bear
Author: Jean M. Auel
Series: Earth’s Children #1
Publication: 1980 by Hodder and Stoughton
The first novel in Jean M. Auel’s magnificent epic of life on the glacial continent of the last Ice Age, when two kinds of human beings, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, shared the earth.
Its heroine is Ayla, a courageous and indomitable young woman whose story begins when she is a five-year-old orphan adopted by the Clan, a group of Neanderthal.
Ayla inspires first surprise, then wariness and finally acceptance by the Clan. She is cared for by its medicine woman Iza and its wise holy man Creb. But she makes an implacable enemy of the group’s future leader. Broud does all he can to destroy her, but Alya is a survivor.
To start with this novel looked to be rather daunting in size being over 500 pages long and rather stocky. However, that doesn’t usually deter me from reading a book because as people apply the phrase age is only a number, pages are just the same in my case! The premise for the story sounded exciting and as a great lover of everything historical, particular everything medieval and prior that to the cave men era, I was excited to start reading this story. I thought there would be enough action to keep the story rolling for the 580 something pages. Sadly, I was rather mistaken.
I borrowed this book from my local library and my librarian informed me that she herself hadn’t managed to finish reading the story and hoped I’d enjoy it. It didn’t really make me dubious because people have very different reading tastes and I know that in the past certain book she’s given up with, I’ve adored. However in this case, I think she was correct with the problem finishing. I did finish the book in its entirety, but I won’t lie, I did skim read the last 50 pages because I wanted to get the book over. The pacing became rather slow and dragged along with the extensive descriptions, it really drew the book out for me.
The plot itself sets up to be an interesting read and I felt like Ayla was a fantastic character. We witness her as a five-year-old girl struggling to survive and being on the border of dying and it’s all very heart-wrenching and kept me reading for the first part. However you are thrown into the first part of the story with no substantial background information to the era or the period or these two groups of people named Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon which we learn to label Clan and the Others for simplicity. Ayla is part of the Others and this is very distinct from the moment we first minute and I liked how Auel made sure we never forgot this. It added well to the plot that Ayla was an outsider struggling to fit into the family Clan that had adopted her. My problem however came with not really understanding the nature of the time and the difference between Others and Clan. Across the whole of the novel certain details fall into place and make you more aware, like Auel is slowly revealing the nature of either side and I liked that, but felt it did leave me struggling to acclimatise to the novel to start with.
The novel falls into third person perspective, but then it would suddenly at a moment drop into first person for certain characters and there would be no real warning. Unlike some authors Auel doesn’t italicise this text to make it distinct and it made me struggle with the change a little because I like to be able to recognise. This was because the thoughts were internal and I felt that rather than the first person perspective being a point of narrative to further the storyline, but a use of understanding individual characters and it would have been more effective for me to be able to see the change. However I’d place this in a personal preference category rather than a criticism of the novel itself.
While the novel unfolded we gained very graphic, flowery descriptions of the scenes, the events of the story and the characters and for the first 300-400 pages I really enjoyed these descriptions. At times they could become a little over-bearing and suffocating to read and I found myself placing the book down for several days before coming back to read more. I think if I took me over three weeks to read the novel with extended periods of placing it down, it informs me that it’s not fast paced enough to keep me reading. However I decided to read around the last 300 pages over a couple of days and that’s when the last 50 pages began to drag. I suppose if I’d placed it down for another few days and read it, I may have enjoyed it, but I felt like my experience with the novel needed to be over and that I couldn’t draw out reading any longer.
Nevertheless, I don’t think you should avoid the book because of the flowery descriptions. Overall they added to the novel and were an integrated part of Auel’s writing style. The descriptions at times certainly added to the thrill of the story, but if you tend to find yourself bored of such things or prefer a novel with a fast pace this probably isn’t for you.
The time of the the setting settles on a very primitive era with hunting, herb and fruit collecting. The characters have spirit men, herbal women and the women of the Clan play the role of second class citizens in place to men. So if you feel strongly about equal rights this novel probably isn’t for you, although reading many historical novels women often play a secondary role to men, so I’d assume if you had such strong ideals, the historical genre wouldn’t be for you. In a way, this novel also covers some very controversial topics, but the way in which Auel handles them and the historical setting takes them to be a more ‘acceptable’ part of society, However, they are not topics to be overlooked lightly and one with a sensitive nature probably wouldn’t enjoy the treatment Alya receives, particularly from Broud.
This story has a central focus of family, support and a woman’s struggle which ultimately intrigued me and how throughout everything she battled hard to triumph against many adversaries and I truly enjoyed this aspect.
The speech of the novel between characters is there, but witnessed as more for the reader than the characters who talk in hand motions and sounds and therefore this makes the third person narrative vital for the story.
For me, my favourite part of the world Auel created were the characters who all stood as individuals with their own traits, distinct morals and actions and they were characters I found that you really got imagery and connections too. This is probably why the novel extended to so many pages with the intense interest in the characters, but I think Auel made a fantastic job and I have only the highest praise for her strong-female lead Ayla and the remaining characters who surrounded her. The dynamics between Ayla, Iza and Creb were certainly heart-warming and I adored the family unit they came. If I were to judge the story on the characters I’d probably give it five stars.
Overall, the length of time it took me to read the story, the annoyance I gained with flowery descriptions and to balance that with the characters, I have a very mixed view of this story and I’m still debating on whether I shall continue with the series because I have to come to a point where my enjoyment was ultimately dropped by having to skim read. However I suggest you take a punt and borrow the book first because it’s had some very positive reviews from other people!
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