Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel

I first read this nearly ten years ago, and now reread it for my book club (this was our "classic" - isn't that a hoot?) It's the story of Ayla, who is either a homo sapient or homo erectus, who is orphaned at the age of four after an earthquake. She is found and adopted by Iza, the medicine woman for the Clan of the Cave Bear, a group of either Cro-Magnons or Neanderthals. The book takes place about 30,000 years ago in the vicinity near the current country of Georgia.

An interesting aspect of the Clan people is that while they cannot really reason or analyze things, they actually inherit memories. That part of their brain is extremely developed, while other parts are underdeveloped. Ayla, on the other hand, has a different brain structure, and so she behaves differently. She can't help it, even though it's often scandalous, but she can reason and make decisions and weigh options. She is accepted into the Clan, as a Clan woman, but nothing they or she can do will make her become another species. Inevitably, her differences become too glaring to ignore, and her actions too dangerous to the Clan.

Of course the most interesting thing about this book is simply the setting and the characters. I don't know of any other books that take place in the pre-modern era, before homo sapiens. I didn't know that these two different types of pre-humans existed simultaneously which leads to fascinating situations. Ms. Auel obviously did a great deal of research, from how flint-knapping works to how brain development would have impacted the different species. While yes, it is very, very long, it is a very fast read and you never feel too bogged down. I know that many people read this in high school for the sex scenes (aka rape scenes) but they neither titillated nor embarrassed at this point. Yes it's an important plot point, but it's one that is only exciting to teenagers.

I'm not really sure what we're going to discuss in book club. When I read it originally, I read the first three books in the series. One thing I was going to discuss was how Ayla "invented" a whole bunch of things (an unreasonable amount in fact) but she must do that more in books two and three - not in this first one (my theory is that she isn't inventing them, but that her original community had invented them long ago and so she saw things like bridles being used but just doesn't consciously remember since she was only 4 when she left them.) The sixth book comes out in March.
I purchased this book at a Borders going out of business sale.

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