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

‚ÄčTrigger warnings for rape and violence against women.

Welcome, readers to the world of The Unspecified Past. Cast your mind back..

No, longer ago than that.

No, keep going.

Woah there, not quite as far as dinosaurs. Back up a bit.

OK you’ve got it. Cave People. Good. I shall continue.

Yes, Cave People, or prehistoric Man. Specifically, the time when homo sapiens had become a distinct species from our cousins, homo…umm… the other type of early man with the big foreheads that only spoke in grunts. You know the ones.

So, welcome to the prehistoric world. Look at all the vegetation! The clear running water! The sabre tooth tigers! Ahhhh, how idyllic.

See the way the homo-sapien child runs through the wildflower meadows. What’s that in her hands? Is it a slingshot? Why, she must have learnt to use tools! Yes, there seems to be a dead rabbit hanging from her back. And look, a bunch of wild garlic – is that food, or has she discovered its antiseptic qualities? Let’s follow her to find out.

Look, she’s heading for those caves! That must be where her tribe lives. Why yes, there’s a…is that big-forehead-early-man-type? Does the homo sapien girl live with this separate race of people? Is the big-forehead-early-man-type…communicating with his dead ancestors because his brain has allowed him to retain all of the knowledge of the previous generations via a combination of meditation and psychoactive drugs? Yes, yes he is. How fascinating! 

What is the child doing now? She’s approached one of the other tribe members and he’s… oh, he’s thrown her to the floor and now he’s…oh god, what is he doing to her? Oh dear. Quick, let’s go back….

*wibbly wobbly screen effect*

So yes, the Clan of the Cave Bear. Part anthropological view of prehistoric man, part young adult horror story of living with ancient savages that regularly beat up and rape their women. It’s an odd one to categorise, what with the child/teenage protagonist making it seem like it was aimed at a YA audience, but with violent scenes that you definitely wouldn’t want kids reading. Luckily, this book is approximately five million pages long so hopefully that will put off younger readers.

As an older reader, I actually found the book really engaging. Aside from the violent rapey bits (I’ll deal with those in a moment) the “world building” (if you can call it that – it is, after all, set on Earth) was very cohesive and although some parts were obviously made up – I very much doubt our ancestors had the knowledge of all the previous generations – the book was very well researched and felt authentic. For example, a lot of the parts about the medicinal properties of plants were correct and would still apply today. The mix of the obviously made up and scientific accuracy blended seamlessly together, despite the author obviously taking some liberties when it came to historical accuracy.

I loved the main character, Ayla, and her role within the clan. She was fearless and clever and managed to win the grudging respect of the male leaders, despite acting in a way that could have got her killed. Because she was an outsider to the group, Ayla’s observations threw up so many interesting topics for debate – the role of women in a patriarchy, the prominence of nature vs nurture, the benefits of diversity within a group…there were so many important lessons to be learnt from the novel that are absolutely relevant today.

However, there’s one part of the book that I’m not sure of – the rape scenes. The premise is that in a relatively uncivilised society, women were there to produce children and look after the hunters gatherers (probably historically accurate, but who knows). The men saw the women as little more than slaves and expected them to be subservient at all times, including when they felt a bit horny. Being physically weaker than the men, the women were powerless to refuse but – this is the bit I struggle with – the females were portrayed as understanding that having sex with men wherever and whenever they wanted it was part of their duty, so the issue of consent never arose. 

Hmmmm. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I can see why the book was written in this way but come on, surely the women could have had a little bit more choice? 

Apart from this, I really enjoyed The Clan of the Cave Bear. It feels like it’s going to be an epic series and there’s just so many different directions that subsequent books could take that I can’t wait to see what happens next. 

Rating: Four wooly mammoths out of five

Well crafted fantasy with great characters and huge scope for subsequent novels. The start of something that you can really get your teeth into.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #Read a book that’s been on your TBR way too long.

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