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The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M Auel

It’s a long time between drinks for fans of Ice Age epic-novelist Jean M Auel. For three decades, the Oregon-based writer has been painstakingly composing her Earth’s Children series, in which her new novel, The Land of Painted Caves, is billed as the final installment.

Auel has rightly been hailed for her commitment to researching the period, 25,000 years ago, in which her characters lived and died. For a 2002 Time article, ‘Romancing the Stone Age’, the reporter trailed Auel on an archaeological dig and exploration of caves in the Dordogne region of France – the present-day territory to which Ayla, the heroine of the series, travels with her husband Jondalar from her starting point in the Eurasian steppes, where she was adopted as a five-year-old Cro-Magnon child by a Neanderthal tribe known as the Clan.

Like the five previous books in the series, which began with 1980’s megaselling The Clan of the Cave Bear, this work is laden (at times, overly so) with detail and depth. Scenes in which Ayla’s spear skills are called upon, for hunting or tribal defence, are somewhat belaboured and will be all too familiar to readers of the earlier books.

For newcomers, however, Auel strikes a helpful balance, finding natural lulls between action scenes and long marches to flash back to key moments in the series and flesh out Ayla’s biography.

Possibly the most unexpected element of The Land of Painted Caves is how fundamentally similar, in Auel’s eyes, the lives of Ice Age humans were to our own.

The author uses the deepening relationship of Ayla and her husband, and the weighty responsibilities she faces as a Zelandoni acolyte, to make the surprising point that the guilt of the working mother is nothing new; leaving your small child in the primary care of others while you go to work (or undertake rigorous and dangerous training) is just as stressful for a Cro-Magnon woman in prehistoric Europe as for a frazzled professional woman in 2011 New Zealand.

What’s more, Ayla’s exceptional competence sets her apart. Her role as the medicine woman / shaman of her tribe, treating everything from morning sickness to measles and life-threatening compound bone fractures thanks to knowledge gained from the Clan, vastly improves the lives of others but also engenders suspicion and mistrust.

A gal can’t win, and the strain on Ayla is compounded by evidence that Jondalar – of whose masculine appeal Auel leaves readers in no doubt – may have been playing away in her absence, which in turn is complicated by the fact that though couples are commonly ‘mated’ to one another in a formal ritual, there is no cultural expectation of monogamy, and therefore no such concept as jealousy. New mates should be accommodated into the existing family unit in order to maintain stability and preserve tribal harmony.

But Auel’s creation is no ordinary woman, and it wouldn’t be (in part) an Ice Age bodice-ripper if she were to turn the other cheek: the famed sex scenes are as improbable and breathlessly Mills-and-Boonish as ever, and the chiselled abs and tawny manes of hair (on both humans and animals) would inspire a body-builder. The painted caves of the title are merely the backdrop.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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