Friday, March 18, 2011

The Land of the Painted Caves by Jean Auel: A review

Jean M. Auel's first book in her "Earth's Children" series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, was published in 1980, and introduced Ayla, a Cro-Magnon child who had lost her family in a earthquake. She was found by a group of Neanderthals, the Clan of the Cave Bear, who took her in and raised her. It was a well-written and thoroughly researched book which brought the people of that prehistorical period to life.

In the next ten years, Auel published three more books in the series: The Valley of Horses; The Mammoth Hunters; and The Plains of Passage. The books continued to show the author's attention to getting the details of prehistoric life plausible and as correct as possible, and they contained a wealth of information about how those lives may have been lived. But by the fourth book, the series was definitely running out of steam.

Twelve years passed before Auel completed the fifth book in the series, The Shelters of Stone, in which Ayla and her lover, Jondalar, were mated and settled down to life in the Ninth Cave of the Zeladonai, who were Jondalar's people. Now, nine years later, the sixth and, apparently final, book in the series, The Land of Painted Caves, will be released on March 29. I received an advance copy and spent this week reading it.

I am fascinated by anthropology and archaeology, especially of prehistoric humans, and so this series would seem like manna from the heavens for me, and, indeed, I have enjoyed it for the most part. This last entry, though, was a disappointment.

The book is divided into three (very big) parts. In part I, Ayla is an acolyte to the Zelandonii, who are healers and keepers of the people's myths and ancient wisdom. Ayla and Jondalar have a baby daughter, Jonayla, and Ayla experiences all the conflicts of any working mother. In part II, five years have passed but Ayla's training continues and she must often spend time away from her family to perform her duties. In part III, she becomes a full-fledged member of the Zelandonii, but her relationship with Jondalar suffers and conflicts threaten to tear them apart.

This is a very, very long book, over 700 pages, and it seems longer.
It could have easily been shortened with some judicious editing and I think that would have made it a better book. As it stands, the writing is boringly repetitious. The author recapitulates all Ayla's history from the previous books. There might have been a need for that once, but it seems like she does it in practically every second chapter. After the second or third retelling, I'm saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know! Just get on with the story!" But she doesn't.

In truth, not much happens in this book. There isn't much drama at all until part III. Mostly it is a relating of the day-to-day lives of the Zelandonai (Cro-Magnon) and how they utilize the resources around them to make life better and easier for themselves. As a gardener myself, one of the things that I truly enjoyed about the book was all the lore about plants and their uses, including psychotropic plants and how they might have been utilized. Auel has not lost her touch as a researcher and the intricate explanations of the uses of plants is proof of that.

I'm sorry to say, though, that I think she has lost her touch as a story-teller, and perhaps it is just as well that this is the last in the series.

4 comments:

  1. Very detailed review. One of my next books is to reread one of Auel's first books. You are right, she writes a very long book that would seem to be able to be shortened whithout hurting the plot.
    Mike Draper

    PS: Stop over at my blog and say hi.

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  2. I don't mind the length of the books, Mike, but I do mind the repetition that was prevalent in this last book.

    Thanks for stopping by. I'll be sure to visit you.

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  3. Thanks for the warning.
    I read The Clan of the Cave Bear 20 years ago and simply loved it, The Valley of Horses and Mammoth Hunters were also fantastic so I was rather disappointed when Plains of Passage came out as the repetitiveness crept in. It seemed that 1/2 the book was re telling of the other 3 but it did have some nice moments and was readable. Shelters of Stone though, was a disaster. It was even more boring and repetitive and I only just managed to finish it. I was hoping that the 6th would be better but it seems that she only got worse. My wife bought it so I will have a go at reading it but I am not holding my breath.
    To me it will always be a fantastic Trilogy with another 3 rubbish books thrown in at the end.

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  4. You've neatly summed up my feelings also, Marcin. The first three books were entertaining and highly readable. The last three, not so much. I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading this last one. Just keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed!

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