Monday, 4 May 2015

Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

People will lie to you about this book. They don't realize that they're lying, but they are. I said I was reading this as part of my almost-finished effort to read the BBC Big Read list, and everyone I came across said "Wow, is there ever a lot of sex in that book!"

What they mean is, apparently, there is a lot of sex in the series. There is not a lot of sex in this book. Every hundred pages, I would announce to someone that there had been no Neanderthal sex yet, and feel a little more disappointed. I didn't know if it would be well-written Neanderthal sex, but I was interested to find out. Then the one sex scene in this entire book came, around page 400, and it was ugly and nonconsensual. Thanks, everyone. Way to make that as awkward and upsetting as possible.

So, if you're reading this book? There is no consensual sex in it. People then backtracked to tell me that oh, it's the later books that have all the good sex in them, but that was not in time to make this book anymore fun. You have been warned where I was not.

Outside of the sex? Well, this is okay. There are a lot of assumptions about Neanderthal culture, but I'm sure that would be the case in any book, as we know so very little. I am not entirely convinced by the notion that the Neanderthals were incapable of changing even a little, particularly when it's presented as these dark hairy people who are bettered at every turn by the blonde blue-eyed Ayla.

Ayla is a bit of a Mary Sue. I know that's an overused term, and there are lots of reasons to hate it. But she's good at everything. She's the best medicine woman they've ever seen. She's the best sling hunter they've ever seen. She's one of the best toolmakers they've ever seen. She's the only one to ever survive a month-long death curse. She's the only one to hide with her baby and survive, weak from childbirth. She's practically a shaman herself. She puts together the connection between sex and pregnancy all by herself, the first person in human history to do so. They have to declare her an honorary man in order to integrate her into their society. Her arms are better set in her body, her hair is prettier, her brain is bigger, she can talk more easily, she's a freaking Aryan portent of doom for the Neanderthals.

Why is she blonde, anyway? The earliest human the Neanderthals meet, the literal herald of their doom (as the shaman discovers), and she's as blonde and white as blonde and white can be.

I'm perhaps being a bit unfair - The Clan of the Cave Bear is entertaining, and it wasn't a difficult read, although some of the descriptions of the primordial caves and forests could be a bit much. I'm sure the sex gets more fun, at least I hope it does. I'm just getting sick of reading these books that people rave to me about as fun books for women, rife with sex, and then sitting down and getting rape instead. I'm looking at you too, Outlander.

It's not bad. It's just maddening, particularly since most of the book is watching Ayla getting beaten down, over and over, by the one Neanderthal who hates her. I have my own ideas of fun popular fiction. That's not really it.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read


  1. I like your review. I read this when it first came out and I was quite young, so the racist/Aryan aspects of it washed over me, it's good to have them pointed out. I gave up half way through the 2nd book because I felt the sex (like her, too perfect) dominated whereas the first book was more about the culture & society of neanderthals and early humans - or at least a 70s/80s understanding of it, which I think has changed a lot since then.

  2. Good review as usual. I always had a soft spot for Neanderthals which is probably why I never continued with the series. Based on what we know now of them, it is more likely that Neanderthals were the blond hair/blue eyed species, given that they were from the north, and Ayla's southern people not so much.