Thursday 25 July 2013

Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear

Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, the first instalment in her Earth's Children series, quickly became one of my favourite books when I first read it two years ago. I will say that, while it isn't my favourite book, it holds pride of place as the best book I have ever read.

So what do I mean by that? Well, while Clan of the Cave Bear doesn't quite capture my imagination in the same way my all-time favourite Maia did, on a purely technical level it is a far superior book. Rarely do you ever come across a story that's as well constructed as Jean Auel's debut novel, from the seamless blend of imagination with history, the rich and vivid characters, the nail-biting drama, and the pitch-perfect pacing. On a storytelling level, I can't praise this book enough. It really is a page turner that keeps you engrossed from start to finish with textbook examples of every technique a good writer should master.

While its sequels are unfortunately a lot more shaky in this regard, Clan of the Cave Bear is a perfect blend of smaller elements coming together to form one cohesive whole. I feel like I could write an essay on all the things I love about this book, but I'll try to keep my review as concise as possible.

In a nutshell, the story revolves around a young Homosapien girl named Ayla growing up amongst an Ice Age tribe of Neanderthals. The dramatic conflicts are numerous and fascinating, but they all ultimately stem from the idea of how Ayla is both charmingly similar and frighteningly different to the people whose society she becomes a part of. Much like the premise behind Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, this is a fantastic concept that allows for endlessly engaging scenes as our heroine struggles to find her place amongst a group of people who are fundamentally different from her.

One detail (often more than one, unfortunately!) that ends up damaging a lot of books is the degree to which authors spend time world building and fleshing out minor background details about the setting. While Clan of the Cave Bear is set in the real world, the way Neanderthal society operates is very much a foreign concept that requires large amounts of description and exposition. Jean Auel rides the line between shallow and superfluous description very well, doling out information as and when it becomes necessary, providing just enough detail to pique the reader's interest without getting bogged down by it (a trap which the sequels were less successful in avoiding). It's rare that I can say I've read a book where the world building enhances the narrative in a meaningful way, but Clan of the Cave Bear is certainly one such novel.

However, probably my favourite aspect of the story was the way in which the author handled dark subject matter. I've touched briefly in the past on how Jean Auel handles sex as opposed to an author like George R. R. Martin, and this extends further to the way in which she tackles dark subject matter in general.
Clan of the Cave Bear is a dark book. Probably one of the darker stories I've ever read, predominantly because of how vivid and personal the material is. Without getting into spoilerville too much, the novel deals with the subjects of rape, extreme sexism, and domestic violence in a big way. Admittedly this is presented through the filter of a developing culture whose moral values differ significantly to our modern day sensibilities, but that doesn't divorce these events from the traumatising emotional impact they have on the characters, and on us the readers.
Segments of the novel are horiffic, painful, and deeply unsettling, and yet they are never bleak and cynical. Jean Auel makes these themes work by contrasting them with incredibly positive, uplifting, life-affirming moments throughout the story, and the trials the heroine goes through consistently strengthen her as a person rather than breaking her down. This combined with the excellent pacing that never leaves us in a dark (or relaxing) place for too long helps the grim subject matter of the novel to work as a smaller part of a greater narrative, having a meaningful and emotional impact that challenges the reader without alienating them. If you ever need a good example of how to appropriately tackle dark themes in a conventional story, Clan of the Cave Bear should be number one on your reading list.

If I had to be critical of the book -- and in the spirit of giving it a fair review, I feel obliged to! -- the one area that I found a little offputting was the way in which the author handled the idea of the spiritual and metaphysical. The Clan have their own fascinating and charmingly logical set of spiritual beliefs about how life, the universe, and everything operates around them (mental arithmetic, for example, being considered a form of high magic that only the greatest of shamans can master!), and for the most part this is a fun and enjoyable extra dimension in the story. The differences in mental capacities between Ayla and her Neanderthal tribe are explained indirectly through differences in evolution, and for the most part the book is grounded in "believable superstition".
There are one or two moments, however, that stretch this suspension of disbelief a little. When a book that has been based in reality for several hundred pages hints at the idea of something a little more "magical" towards the end, it gives you pause to scratch your head and question the divergence in tone.
This is a minor part of the book, and certainly not a crippling flaw, but it stood out to me as an oddity amongst an otherwise excellently constructed story that could have easily been omitted.

Overall, though, The Clan of the Cave Bear is a shining example of superbly cultivated, deep, compelling storytelling that enriches you as a reader while taking you on a fantastic journey into an unfamiliar world at the same time. It's everything a quality novel should be, scoring top marks in almost every area for the technical expertise that went into crafting this story.

I give The Clan of the Cave Bear a critically acclaimed A+ Distinction With Honours out of ten!

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