18th Apr 2011
The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel
As regular readers will know, I love the Earth’s Children series and their author Jean Auel madly. Like any love that has been carried over from childhood into adulthood, one must be prepared for disappointment; you have changed, it’s different now.
For this reason I had been trying desperately not to get my hopes to high up for the long awaited finale to Ayla and her world; The Land of Painted Caves.
Because of this, I was not, unlike many readers, that disappointed by the book. The last two, The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone were similarly long, with many descriptive passages somehow superfluous to the plot.
None of the three books had the same spark, the same vitality as The Clan of the Cave Bear or even The Mammoth Hunters, but Ayla is older now and The Clan of the Cave Bear was thirty years ago; a gradual decline is to be expected.
The Land of Painted Caves is divided more or less into two halves; the summer after we last saw Ayla and her little family in the Shelters of Stone, and four years later, when Ayla preparing to be a Zelandoni.
The majority of the book reads like an incredibly detailed travel diary around south west Cro-Magnon France, touring the sacred sites and caves of ancient times, times even more ancient than Ayla’s.
Whereas this is all very interesting and for anyone with any knowledge of anthropology brilliantly researched, the sheer amount of detail (even toilet stops are noted) and the repetitive nature of the descriptions, especially of the reactions that Ayla gets from the people she meets on the way (she speaks in a foreign accent and Wolf loves her daughter, we get it already) were very frustrating to read.
The plot, so far as it is, seems to be so drawn out as to make it defunct. This book is a clear and vivid description of an entire people, their ways, their traditions and their entire culture is laid out in front of you.
This made the book almost like reading fantasy, not historical fiction, and was markedly different in style to The Clan of the Cave Bear, where the complete nature of the world compliments the gripping plot. This book tells, not shows, and it suffered for it.
Ayla is as annoyingly perfect as ever, along with mini-Ayla, Jonayla, who was just unbelievably cutesy. Ayla’s Zelandoni training was a cross between interesting for how it affected her relationship with Jondalar (who continues to be as Ken-esque as ever), and repetitive in how The First, her mentor, repeated her lessons again and again and again.
Although it was fascinating seeing the evolution of thought, the somewhat modern nature of the writing took away from the wonder of being able to count for the first time.
Plus, after she’s previously invented matches, hair conditioner, riding horses and various sex acts, being able to count to twenty just doesn’t seem that impressive any more.
There were however parts of the book that were excellent; seeing Ayla strap her baby to her back, pick up her spear thrower and go after that wolverine made my heart pound with excitement; it is so rare to see motherhood being written about in practical rather that emotional terms.
There were also various subplots relating to a family that neglects their children that was sadly abandoned half way through and then picked up again towards that end that showed how early societies worked together in a emotionally stirring way.
Overall though, this book was slightly disappointing, and I really wish I could have given it more stars. When I met Auel (who I still love and respect more than any other author I’ve met for her dedication to her writing, research and general loveliness) she said that the ending would surprise us.
It certainly did me, and got me thinking. That to me bumped up the book. Overall though, this is a sad end to a series I still love. If you’ve never read The Clan of the Cave Bear before, then get on it. But unless you’re a hardcore fan, I’d save The Land of Painted Caves for a summer read.