Kayleigh's Reviews > The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
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Dec 16, 10

bookshelves: historical-fantasy
Recommended to Kayleigh by: Read it for my Bio-Anth class
Read in December, 2010

A disappointment. The concept is interesting, especially in light of recent archaeological evidence suggesting that Neandertals and Cro-Magnons (anatomically modern humans) may have interbred. However, the execution is extremely poor. The pacing is uneven, the prose is so flowery it hurts, and the characters are flat. Some other things that bothered me:
--The author has the tendency to "info-dump", frequently disrupting the flow of the story to deliver lengthy descriptions of plants, rocks, characters' appearances, etc. I understand that setting is important here, as most readers aren't likely to be familiar with the flora and fauna of Ice Age Europe. In that regard, it's obvious that she did her research, but I felt the depiction could have been done better; maybe if the prose weren't so purple, or if she didn't describe the same caves, valleys, and plants over and over again, I wouldn't have minded so much.
--The repetition. Oh lord, the repetition. Constant reiterations of how different Ayla is, how special, how strange, how unique, blah blah blah. Yes, she is different from the people of the Clan (I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say her belonging to a different species might have something to do with that), WE GET IT, MOVE ON.
--Faulty science. Somewhere near the beginning of the book, Auel makes some kind of reference to the size of the Clan members' (Neandertals) heads being related to how much knowledge they can hold. At first, this seems to make some sort of sense, as the size of the skull influences brain size (although brain size and intelligence are not directly correlated--Neandertals' brains were actually larger than ours, though we have no way of knowing how smart they were). But later on she states that this is the reason they cannot progress technologically--because their brains, and therefore their skulls, would have to get larger in order to learn new things, and if their heads get too large, childbirth will become impossible. Honey, that is just not how it works. Does your brain get bigger every time you learn something new? No? Didn't think so. There are also numerous references to "the memories"--knowledge of ceremonies, traditions, skills and Clan history that Clan members are apparently born with. They also have some kind of mystical abilities to access and share the memories of their ancestors stored in their own minds. Though it makes for an intriguing storytelling element, this notion is historically and scientifically ridiculous. It isn't possible for someone to be born with memories or cultural knowledge--culture is learned, and memories are gathered through personal experience. If this were a fantasy book, the mystical story elements would make more sense. But Clan of the Cave Bear isn't a fantasy (supposedly). I found it in the historical fiction section of the library, and I've seen it listed as historical fiction everywhere else I've looked.
Just as ludicrous were Auel's assertions that the Clan people are capable of speech but not laughter (fossil evidence suggests that Neandertals did had the capacity for vocal communication, and if they can speak, there's no reason why they should be unable to laugh), and incapable of crying. These were merely plot devices to make Ayla stand out, but the absolute lack of logic in these distinctions makes me wonder if Auel put any thought at all into why they should exist.
--All of the Neandertal characters have dark hair, skin and eyes, whereas Ayla is blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. I suppose I should give Auel a break on this one, since the book was written in the 1980s, while technology that made it possible to sequence Neandertal DNA--which led to the discovery that some of them possessed the genes coding for fair skin and red or blond hair--wasn't available until a few years ago. Still, I sensed a white supremacist agenda. Ayla, the "golden-haired goddess" is so much better at everything than the people of the Clan, she seems to bring them luck, everything is better with her around, and anyone who treats her badly receives divine retribution.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Lynne (new)

Lynne Wow, you finished it. Thanks for the rundown; glad I never attempted this one--there'd be holes in the walls.


Kayleigh Haha. Well, if it hadn't been for a class I probably wouldn't have attempted it either. Actually, before I'd gotten halfway through it, I was really wishing I'd picked something else.


Sewlyfluff While the book may be historical fiction - that doesn't mean the author doesn't have the freedom to invent certain things. Sometimes in order to make a story work an author needs to create some information that isn't known or doesn't exist - its called FICTION.


Kayleigh Sewlyfluff wrote: "While the book may be historical fiction - that doesn't mean the author doesn't have the freedom to invent certain things. Sometimes in order to make a story work an author needs to create some in..."

I have nothing against creative license. As I stated above, my biggest problem with the book's mystical elements was that they were illogical and (in my opinion) poorly explained. I didn't feel they were necessary to the story--the social tension created by Ayla's presence in the Clan would have been enough to keep me interested--but honestly, I wouldn't have minded them if they had been more logical. Because of these elements, however, I consider this book a work of fantasy rather than of historical fiction. Fantasy with some historical elements, if you will. There's nothing wrong with that, I just wish libraries and bookstores would shelve it as such.


Andre I think you nailed it on a couple of points. First, the overwhelming and repetitive descriptions of the landscape, the plants, etc. As you say it is important to put the reader in the context, but sometimes it seems too much, to the point that the plot seems to break and you forget what was going on with the people.

The second thing, the flowery prose. I'm not a native English speaker, but whenever I can I try to read a book in English if it was originally written in that language. I don't know if this is normal, but for the first few chapters I had to look up a word or two every couple of sentences. I got bored after a while because most terms were a different way to state the same thing. So it became quite repetitive and tiresome at some points. Thanks for your review.


message 6: by Gill (new)

Gill I agree with you on so many points you have made in your review. However
>"It isn't possible for someone to be born with memories or cultural knowledge--culture is learned, and memories are gathered through personal experience."
We certainly learn by shared experience, but many animals have no contact with their young, and yet the young have those instincts or 'memories' ingrained in them from birth - swallow chicks making their first migrations without their parents, many reptilian young hatching without parents around, spiders ditto. It may well be that some of the offshoots of the ape-like mammals also had such ingrained behaviours.
We like to think of humanoids as apart from the animal kingdom, but this often leads to poor understanding of our species, and neanderthals were a separate branch (even though cross-breeding was just about possible) of the genetic tree.


Kayleigh Gill wrote: "I agree with you on so many points you have made in your review. However
>"It isn't possible for someone to be born with memories or cultural knowledge--culture is learned, and memories are gather..."


Instinct and memory are not the same thing. All animals have certain ingrained behaviors, humans included. Where instinct comes from or how such behaviors are passed from one generation to another without being taught is not fully understood and is an ongoing subject of discussion, speculation and investigation in the biological community. It's a fascinating topic, too--one of the reasons Animal Behavior was among my favorite undergrad bio courses.

But ingrained behavior isn't what is portrayed in this book. Auel describes the clan shaman entering a trance-like state in which he is able to physically experience the lives of various important figures in Clan history. That's not instinct, it's a poorly-explained form of mind reading with a little (sort of) time travel thrown in. It was also yet another clumsy plot device to further alienate Ayla from other Clan members, lest readers forget how different and special she is. Not being a biological child of the Clan, Ayla is incapable of accessing these memories--though when under the influence of the right drugs, she is apparently capable of seeing the future, which is how she accidentally discovers that Neandertals are doomed to extinction.


message 8: by Gill (new)

Gill I read the last book in the series recently, but have not read any of the others yet, and I must say am not tempted to after reading Painted Caves.
So I must bow to your superior knowledge of the book.


Kayleigh Gill wrote: "I read the last book in the series recently, but have not read any of the others yet, and I must say am not tempted to after reading Painted Caves.
So I must bow to your superior knowledge of the ..."


I had almost the same reaction--after reading this one, I had no desire to attempt the later books in the series.


message 10: by Gill (new)

Gill Wise move. I am enjoying ploughing through some very flawed books and reading people's reviews of them, to help me avoid some of the pitfalls in writing about pre-history.
It seems to me it is a balancing act between satisfying the desire for detailed explanations required by the 'survival freaks' and keeping focussed on the plot as demanded by those reading for a good pacy story.
I understand Auel's problem. My initial write was a story, after editing for a GR non-fiction author writing about the period. It took me 6 weeks to write a novel-length work covering the first third of the story. It has taken another year to do much detailed research. Now I need to rewrite it all in a much more focussed compact form with the whole story in no more pages than the first third took, whilst including the research that is relevant in small drops rather than the indigestible lumps Auel serves up. And definitely no porn! The nearest I got was a childbirth scene which is integral to my plot.
Reading the first page of reviews of (so far) her first three books (if I'm correct and this is the third) I suspect I should perhaps get hold of the first and call it a day.
My non-fiction author recommended I read some of her writing. I wonder if he did it as a warning?!
As for Auel, I suspect she got a series contract after the success of the first, and quickly got so engrossed in the research that she got bored with the story she had planned, and so 'wrote them for herself' as a method of recording her research, but by the last in the series was heartily sick of writing them.
On the other hand I read Edith Pargeter and Mary Renault for how to write about early times at its best.


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