Sunday, 22 January 2012

'Clan of the Cave Bear' ... Get around to it!

I remember during the eighties everyone was reading 'Clan of the Cave Bear' by Jean M. Auel - and they were raving about it.  I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading it, but finally I have and now that Auel has finished the six part series, I haven't stopped reading this saga (just finished number three 'The Mammoth Hunters').

The reason why I finally picked it up to read was because of a recommendation from a friend who I regularly 'talk books' with.  She was astounded I hadn't read it and demanded that I did so pronto, and I dutifully downloaded it.  So, what is it about this book that gets people talking?  For me it is the fascination of where we have come from as a species, and how we have become the people we are today.

The novel was also made into a movie directed by Michael Chapman.  Here is a trailer for the movie -

The story is set in prehistoric times, roughly 30 000 years ago.  It follows the story of Ayla, the protagonist, who is separated from her parents at a young age and taken in by a travelling group of 'clan' people, they are Neanderthal.  

This story interests readers on a number of levels.  Firstly, Ayla's struggle to belong and fit into a vastly different group is heart wrenching.  The emotional journey she experiences is so engaging to read.  Ayla is a highly likable character.  She is intelligent and caring and we sympathies with her readily as she attempts to learn the cultural norms, taboos and language of a neanderthal society.  As she becomes interested in healing and medicine, the story interests us further and we become privy to the magic of the plants used to heal in prehistoric times.

Secondly, the life of the Neanderthal, the way they existed and their differences from humans makes for fascinating reading.  Auel's ability to bring research to life is intoxicating.  I found myself doing a little of my own research as I read this book, wanting to learn more about our evolutionary cousins.  One thing I came across is that it is likely some human beings today carry Neanderthal genes.  Fascinating!  It is so interesting to read about a human species that is now extinct.  One thing that is particularly intriguing is the differences in the brain structures.  Neanderthals had very large back brains and Auel capitalises on this by showing the clan's remarkable capacity for memory.

Another aspect that makes this an exceptional read is the detail in terms of the daily life of prehistoric people.  The clothing, food, tools and housing are all described in fascinating detail along with how they were made.  Humanity's capacity for innovation is celebrated in this series.  But at the same time we are reminded of the dire consequences if we ever lose respect for the earth and all that it provides.  Auel cleverly reminds us of this and we wonder if we have already lost it.

The only real criticism I have is that perhaps Ayla is too perfect.  Surprise, surprise, as we read on in the series, not only is she altruistic, intelligent and innovative, she is drop dead gorgeous!  Sometimes her perfection and her innocence about it, "I am not beautiful" gets a little irritating ... but only a little.

I am up to the fourth novel, 'The Plains of Passage', but for me, so far, 'The Clan of the Cave Bear' has been a favourite.  I highly recommend it for those who particularly enjoy historical fiction.

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