Earth’s Children Six Not Very Good: Earth Still Not Flat
Before I bought “The Land of Painted Caves”, I had a quick look at the Amazon reviews first. Why I did this, I can’t say. After slogging through the first five instalments, there was never any doubt that I was going to buy this one as well. But I’m quite pleased I did, because it’s been a while since I’ve seen that level of vitriol directed at…well, to be honest, at anything.
“I waited years for this book and I was so excited,” wailed Mette. “This book is just depressing”, said Gobecgo. Great exception was taken to an excessive use of The Mother Song (“This has 35 verses (I counted) and it was repeated in full three times with extracts scattered throughout” noted M). While there is the odd lone voice gallantly trying to redeem the book (“There is not a mediocre book in the set!!!” insisted Janesk7), the general consensus is one of deep sadness, accompanied by genuine surprise.
I’m not going to go against the flow and try to argue that “Painted Caves” is somehow a work of tragically misunderstood genius. In fact, I’ll agree with everything the reviewers have said. It is slow-moving. There is a lot – no, really, a lot – of repetition. The Mother Song is utter drivel, the central characters ceased being in any way interesting about a thousand pages ago, and there are entire sections that read more like the Rough Guide To Paleolithic France than a work of imaginative fiction. The only thing I can’t understand is why anyone was even faintly taken aback by this. “Painted Caves” is exactly what I was expecting.
It’s not really possible to explain why I think the problems with “Painted Caves” are so entirely predictable without describing the other books first, so here’s a quick tour of the preceding five books in the Earth’s Children series. The series is set in the Upper Paleolithic era. The earth is in the grip of an Ice Age, and two species of humans – Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons – are busy figuring out who will inherit the Earth. One of these five books is brilliant. Guess which one.
Here’s the thing, you see. Auel did a lot of research before writing her first book; she did survival courses, learned from experts in Aboriginal culture, and probably went camping a lot. Although some of her basic premises (for example, the idea that the Neanderthals were basically silent and communicated through signs) have since been challenged by new research, at the time they represented cutting-edge thinking about the origins of human civilisation. And that’s what really makes the first book completely compelling. Because it’s Ayla’s journey through childhood, its large amounts of exposition and description make narrative sense. Ayla takes us into an ancient, primordial world – the world we all ultimately come from – and it’s a really amazing read.
The other dynamic which makes the first book great is that, while we know the Cro-Magnons win in the end, there’s simply no way Ayla is going to survive unless she suppresses her Cro-Magnon traits and adapts to Clan society. The attributes we, as readers, admire – her resourcefulness, her intelligence, her adaptability – are frowned on by the Clan, which has strict segregation of roles by gender and is genetically incapable of learning new ideas. Even though Ayla is beautiful by our standards, to the Clan she’s “big and ugly”. While we’re rooting for her, they’re frowning at her as unwomanly and “non-Clan”. It’s a great plot device, that gives the story an enormous, nail-biting tension.
In the first book, nothing comes easily to Ayla. She is constantly battling to balance her innate difference with the need to conform. In a particularly painful episode, she is raped by a Clan man, conceiving the baby she desperately longs for. Her child (half-Clan, half-Cro-Magnon) is clearly the genetic hope of the Clan, since children like him are the only way their gene-pool will make it into the future. But since he appears “deformed”, her son comes perilously close to being condemned to death.
This episode is the book in microcosm – the battle between the old and the new, the reluctance to accept difference, and the precarious balance that finally allows Durc to survive. And when Ayla is finally thrown out of the Clan at the end of the first book (sorry to spoil, but that’s what happens), it’s a genuinely great moment. Plus, it’s a magnificent set-up for a sequel.
Which…is inevitably disappointing.
“The Valley of Horses” is, essentially, a Caveman bodice-ripper. It describes the glacially slow but inevitable coming-together of Jondalar (who is undertaking a sort of Ice-Age Grand Tour with his brother Thonalan) and Ayla. Jondalar and Thonalan walk the earth, meet people, discover stuff, have adventures, and have really quite a lot of sex.
Oh God, the Caveman Sex. If you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now.
So here’s the deal. In Book One, Jean shows us Clan society, where any man can have sex with any woman he fancies, in a process described as “relieving his needs”. Obviously, That Shit Ain’t Right. So by way of compensation, in Book Two we get a Cro-Magnon society which is its polar opposite. Specifically, we get Jondalar. Jondalar is six foot tall with blond hair, blue eyes and a big knob. The big knob part isn’t just my wistful fantasy; it’s an important plot-point. Several episodes are devoted entirely to the enormous enormity of Jondalar’s enormous knob, and how he somehow feels the sex he has is never quite as good as it might be if he could get it all the way in (I’m not making this up, I swear), and how he wonders if one day he will find a woman who can take all of him that’s on offer. All of this is described in a weird combination of Solemn Capitalisation and yucky anatomical detail. Sex scenes in books normally cheer me up immensely, but these just squitted me right out. (Note for the future: when I am King, it will be illegal to Mis-use Capital Letters To Try And Make Your Gratuitous Sex Scene Sound More Like An Important Religious Ritual And Less Like Soft Porn. And anyone describing a character’s vagina as “The warm, yielding Centre of her Womanhood” will be taken out back and shot.)
So, Jondalar and Thonalan wander the earth, spreading the seed and meeting new people. Meanwhile, Ayla is living alone, and busily turning into the world’s first Mary-Sue. She discovers how to make sparks with iron pyrites and flint, thus eliminating the need for twirly sticks when making fire. She tames the first horse, and then gets all uppity and tames the first cat (in fact, the first Cave Lion). She builds the first prey-catching pit. She cooks delicious meals. How could any man resist? And, when Jondalar arrives after his extended humping tour of Ice-Age France and Ayla rescues him from a Cave Lion (sadly, Thonalan gets eaten, but if you’re anything like me, you won’t care), he is duly smitten.
There is then a whole lot of really very tiresome stuff where Jondalar teaches Ayla to speak using words. (The Clan, being basically silent, use sign-language.) Even Auel gets bored of this in the end, and Ayla has some sort of convenient dream-based brainstorm and wakes up with a perfect command of Cro-Magnon language. Then, just to spin things out a little, there’s all this confusion about sexual signals. Even while the two central characters are busy wanking in the woods (Jondalar) and lying awake at night wondering why, oh why, he doesn’t fancy her (Ayla), we can all see the inevitable union lumbering painfully over the horizon, and when they do finally get down to business, you wonder how it could get any more irritating.
And then…they have sex for the first time. Did I mention that Jondalar has a really big knob? Well, I now have to break it to you that the reason Ayla and Jondalar are clearly, like, destined for each other is because she is able to fit all of his outsized manhood inside her Magical Cave Of Wonders.
I know. Sorry, but it’s true.
See, as long as Ayla is struggling to adapt and survive, the story is fascinating. When she’s doing really well and having fun (and especially when she’s being given Pleasures by her dream man) the story is tiresome. There’s no narrative tension or fear to overcome the essential clunkiness of the writing style. Also, since this is Ayla’s journey, every time something new is needed for the story (like a tame horse), Ayla inevitably has to be the first person to discover it; which makes her unbearably talented, clever and beautiful.
The tiresomeness continues on down the quality curve throughout “The Mammoth Hunters”, when Ayla meets the Mamutoi and reveals yet more new talents. Now she can psychically track animals, and see the future. Every man who lays eyes on her fancies her. She tames a wolf-cub, thus inventing Man’s Best Friend. There is a really dull Edward-and-Bella-and-Jacob style sub-plot where Ayla briefly gets together with Ranec (the world’s first Token Black Guy), because she doesn’t think she’s worthy of Jondalar and he doesn’t think he’s worthy of her; but then they are reunited after all, even though Ranec is clearly a better bet, because their love is So True (and, presumably, because Jondalar’s knob is just that big). If your taste in erotic writing runs to a lot of Unnecessary Capitals, pulsing pink flowers scented with salt and honey, and pillars of throbbing maleness, well, you’re going to enjoy this book very much indeed. I’ll be the first to admit that’s a pretty big If.
“The Mammoth Hunters” ends with the happy couple setting off for Jondalar’s home. In “The Plains of Passage”, they meet a lot of other people who aren’t as nice as the Mamutoi, but are, generally speaking, in awe of Ayla and her tame horses and her tame wolf and her healing skills and her language skills and her beauty and her capacious vagina. (Okay, I made the last bit up.) They go along and they go along and they go along, Henny-Penny style, until they finally arrive at Jondalar’s place.
Guess where Jondalar’s family live. Go on. Where do they live? Where’s the only possible place the worthy mate of Proto-Mary-Sue? They live in the Caves at Lascaux. Seriously. Ayla’s man is a high-ranking member of the world’s most famous and gifted Cavemen ever. Holy-Paleolithic-Sparklemotion-Awesomesauce!!!
We’ve now reached the absolute bottom of the quality curve; if you can deal with this, I promise it won’t get any worse. Ayla’s Mary-Sueness is now in full flower. This entire seven-hundred-page book is about how all the girls are jealous and all the men are horny and all the elders are suspicious and the High Priestess wants to train her as her successor and Ayla gets a minor amount of teenage-style grief off Jondalar’s ex-girlfriend but she wins them all over by her unquestioning goodness and talent and beauty and really, you’ll probably want to kill her, but it’s still kind of fun, in a strange and dreadful way. It was during this book that I invented Auel Bingo, where you count off how many of the following events occur in any given chapter. 1) Someone meets, and is surprised by, Ayla’s tame wolf. 2) Someone meets, and is surprised by, Ayla’s tame horses. 3) Someone notices Ayla has a foreign accent. 4) Someone notices Ayla is really hot, and wants to get her deerskins off. 5) Ayla does something awesome, then explains that she got to be so awesome from living with the Clan. 6) At least one character is referred to by an incredibly clunky and burdensome name, e.g. The One Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother. 7) Ayla and Jondalar Have Sex and it makes your toes curl in a bad way. If you tick off all seven, you’re allowed to yell “House!” and run down the road to buy chocolate. The book ends with Ayla’s Matrimonial, where she is pregnant (naturally), and all the men are still lusting after her and Jondalar’s ex is still jealous.
As Ayla and Jondalar wander off into the chilly ice-age sunset, it’s all over. There can be no more. The reason why most stories stop at the wedding is because after that, they either live happily ever after, which is boring, or they don’t live happily ever after, which upsets the fans.
And then, for no good reason that I can account for, since after five best-sellers she must, must have made enough money to not need to do it, Jean Auel wrote another.
So, firstly, “Painted Caves” is largely boring. But of course it is! Ayla is juggling a baby, a home, a husband and a job (she’s training to be a Priestess). How is it fair to expect her and Jondalar to go off and have adventures on top of everything else? Secondly, there is a lot of wandering around caves, looking at paintings. Well, duh. If there’s one thing the first five books taught us, it’s that Jean Auel is not one to hold back on sharing the fruits of her research. If she’s been lucky enough to get an insider’s tour of the Lascaux caves, you’d better believe we’re all going to be reading a whole lot about what they look like.
Thirdly, a lot of reviewers seem to have taken exception to the end-of-book drama moment, where both Jondalar and Ayla have affairs. Once again I say to you; duh. Sometimes, this is what happens. Life is hard. People are weak. Marriage takes work. Sometimes we slip. And let’s face it, there’s plenty of evidence from the first four books that Jondalar and Ayla really, really suck at communicating with each other.
The other major theme of the review firestorm is the book’s repetitiveness, and I will admit that if you want to play Auel Bingo, this is definitely the best book to play it with. The basic narrative unit goes like this. Ayla and her crew rock up to some new location; there are many, many ponderous introductions; everyone is struck with Ayla’s foreignness / hotness / animal-controllingness / other miscellaneous awesomeness; Ayla tells her origin story; lather; rinse; repeat. If you turned Auel Bingo into a drinking game, you could probably be calling people up to tell them you loved them and staggering into doorframes within the first six chapters.
But, again – this was all entirely predictable from the previous book. The only difference between “Shelters of Stone” and “Painted Caves” is that, since Ayla has now been accepted by Jondalar’s family and they have got married, there’s even less going on than there was last time. Again, people, what did you think was going to happen? And yes yes yes, I know you all had much better ideas for sequels (Ayla’s half-Clan son Durc shows up; Ayla meets someone from her original tribe; there is some sort of Clan / Zelandonii war), but that’s clearly not how Jean Auel wants to play it. Since the very first book, we’ve all known what Ayla wants; she wants to be a Medicine woman, have her own home, get married and have babies. The entire narrative drive of the intervening four-thousand-and-odd pages has been leading her towards this destination. Why act all hurt and upset because she finally got there?
So, yeah; that’s “The Land of Painted Caves”; a lot of tiresome domestic detail, a dollop of marital unhappiness, and a lot of stuff about cave-paintings that would have been much better if they’d just bitten the bullet and put in a Photograph section in the middle. It’s not good. In fact, it’s really, really bad, and I’m not trying to defend it. It’s just not actually any worse than the last one.
You may now ask the really obvious question. Dear Cassandra. If you knew this book would be crap, and did not think much of the previous ones either (the brilliant opening book excepted), whatever possessed you to spend more than ten of your fine English pounds downloading the thing onto your Kindle? The only answer I have is, Why do people run marathons? All that pain and misery for the debatable pleasure of saying, “I did it”. I didn’t especially enjoy “Painted Caves”, but by God, at least I finished it. I’m expecting to receive my medal in the post.
If you’re only going to read one book by Jean Auel, then it should unquestionably be “The Clan of the Cave Bear“. If you only read two, then the second one should be “The Valley of Horses“. But if you, like me, get suckered in and feel compelled to finish this marathon, then “The Land of Painted Caves” is available from Amazon for £10.99 for the Kindle edition or £10.79 for the book. My advice is to save a tree and go for the Kindle edition. The planet will thank you in the long run.