Cave Bear is set way, way back 18,000 years ago just before the last Ice Age and it tells the story of Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon woman who is taken in by a group of Neanderthal people after losing her parents in an earthquake.The book chronicles her fight for acceptance growing up in the Clan where all her natural instincts mark her out as being one of ‘the Others’.
I remembered the book being quite slow to get going the last time I read it so for the first couple of chapters I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from worrying that I wasn’t going to enjoy it this time round. The problem with Auel’s writing is that while it is undeniably meticulously researched, she tries to tell us everything that she’s learnt. In the first few chapters the Clan are on the move so we’re treated to a seemingly unending description of the terrain they pass through and the flora and fauna about them.
While this is very interesting there’s only so long that descriptions of plants can hold my attention. Especially when there’s some action to get my teeth into. Having said that I absolutely love the parts of the book when we’re told what people cook with and when Ayla begins her training to be a medicine woman and has to start identifying and using therapeutic plants. Those parts are fascinating.
But the meat of the story is all about Ayla’s fight for acceptance by the incredibly traditional Clan and her inner battle to control her ‘unacceptable’ traits. Taking Ayla in splits the Clan into two parties – those who see her as another human and those who see her as too different and although she falls under the protection of the highest ranked family in the Clan there are some people who never fail to make life difficult for her. It’s this fight which makes for the most interesting action in the story and it would be a hard heart indeed which wasn’t rooting for Ayla to overcome the prejudice she spends her life fighting.
And I can’t write a review of Cave Bear without giving a shout-out to my two favourite characters of the whole series – Creb and Iza. These two siblings take Ayla in despite knowing all the harm they could be doing to the stability of the Clan and knowing all the trouble it could cause and they raise her as their own child. They are both warm, loving and genuinely wonderful people. Plus Creb is super-cool and magic. I find the ‘magic’ quite hard to buy – the idea that Neanderthals were all born with innate racial memories and that’s why their heads were so big sounds like nonsense to me but it was the one point that really jarred in the whole novel so I let it go.
As I mentioned this is the first book in a series, Earth’s Children, of 5 (there’s actually 6 but the last one was so chronically bad that it doesn’t count) and it is by far the best. I think you could read it as a stand-alone novel and be quite happy. Books 2-5 see Ayla back among ‘the Others’ and the Clan only feature as very minor characters now and then which I think is a shame as they’re some of the best characters Auel has created.
So in conclusion, I love this book, I love the whole concept of the series and how well researched it is and if you read only one book in this series, make sure it’s this one!