Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Maybe it’s the weather, I don’t know, but summer reading has been on my mind of late. Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear is great summer reading. It’s engaging without being consuming and, if you like it, there are four more books in the series that you can search out.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set pretty close to the beginning of human existence and is the story of Ayla, a tall, slender, blue-eyed girl, who is orphaned as a young girl after a natural disaster destroys her home and her parents. She is discovered, half-starved, on the riverbank by a clan of, well, Neanderthals. Although they are afraid of Ayla at first (she is an “other” and not really human, as far as they’re concerned), Iza the clan’s healer, and Creb, their spiritual leader convince their leader to bring Ayla with them.

And so she becomes of the clan (who live in a large cave and worship the cave bear)—kind of. Ayla is strange and cannot move like they do, or speak properly (their language is more gutteral than she is used to). She also looks wrong. But, she is loved—by Iza and Creb anyway. Slowly, Ayla integrates in to the clan and soon the details of her earlier life are too hazy for her to really connect with. And although most members of the clad come to except her and her unusual looks and behaviour, Broud, the chief’s son, is jealous of the attention she garners and as she becomes increasingly accepted, he grows to hate her more.

The clan people have shorter life spans than Ayla’s people, and as a result mature sexually a lot sooner. It doesn’t take Broud long to learn that sex can be used as a weapon, and some of the scenes involving his treatment of Ayla are extremely disturbing in the kind of violence they describe. Eventually, Ayla becomes pregnant. Having the baby nearly kills her, but she survives and so does her son. Durc is the first “hybrid” child and ultimately represents the future of the clan.

Ayla, however, does not fair as well. She stays with the clan, despite Broud’s abuse, because of Durc, Iza and Creb. But Iza and Creb are old and after Creb dies, Iza tells Ayla to run away—without them there to protect her, Broud will surely kill her, she says. So Ayla runs, leaving behind her the only life she has ever really known.

Writing about prehistoric people is pretty gutsy, and although I have nothing to really go on, I think Auel does a pretty good job. The way of life of the clan people (from religion, to medicine, to what they eat and how they cook it) is incredibly detailed and the landscape she evokes is rich and vivid. Clearly, quite a bit of research went into putting together this world.

The Clan of the Cave Bear isn’t like to be a book that changes your life, but neither is it fluff. Instead, it’s well-written, evocative literary entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not such a bad thing for a book to be. The plot is intricate and Auel takes some real narrative risks, both in terms of the general story arc and in how direct she is about what is happening to Ayla and the clan itself. It’s a summer read with guts (in the best sense) that you won’t be embarrassed to read in public at any time of year.

The Clan of the Cave Bear
by Jean M. Auel
First published in 1980 (cover image shown from Bantam Books edition)

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