From its position near the top of my reading list, I can infer that this was one of the first books that I added to it, which means that I don’t remember how it ended up there or who may have recommended it to me. Whoever that person was (maybe myself), I would like to apologize to them for not heeding their recommendation and reading this book sooner. The Clan of the Cave Bear might not sound like an exciting piece of literature from its summary, but it is a classic example of a book that under-promises, and over-delivers, and there is definitely a reason the series is highly acclaimed.
Auel’s core concept might be unassuming at first glance, but capturing it, turning it into a compelling story, and making it something that people will enjoy reading, is a daunting task; it is the kind of concept that I might think of, but would hesitate to attempt to write for fear that I would never do it justice. Auel does it more than justice: she provides a piece of soft science fiction that is a compelling story, evocative of its time and place and unique circumstances while simultaneously embracing themes of universal humanity. She manages to convey a unique species with a unique world-view and way of thinking that is as convincingly alien, or more so, as any bug-eyed creature out of what we more conventionally imagine for the genre.
I call this soft science fiction because it is character driven, but it is no less rigorous for that, and probably has more research and science going into its settings, peoples, cultures, and concepts than hard science fiction like Foundation or Rocheworld. Auel gives us a third-person omniscient narrator that unobtrusively shows the reader the world and its people, and she provides a beautiful depth and breadth of detail on every aspect of life for her characters that makes The Clan of the Cave Bear wonderfully immersive in a way that few books manage to be.
Nor are this book’s strengths limited to its bases in fact and scientific attention to detail, for Auel’s imagination is no less rigorous in creating vivid cultures and characters with the few pieces of paleoanthropological evidence serving as starting points. From the spiritual life of the Clan, to their interpersonal dynamics, to the genetic/racial memory they carry that makes their thinking utterly unique and alien yet still understandable and relatable, these people may be based upon Neanderthals, but you would be better off approaching them as a unique subvariant of humanity, a species that existed in the homo genus but about which you need have no preconceived notions.
It does take some time to get into the book – between the third-person omniscient narrator, the level of detail, the exposition-by-immersion, the disregard for conventional plot structures that a reader might expect, and the character’s initial youth and lack of agency, I think I was nearly a third into the book before I was fully convinced I was enjoying it. Even once you realize that you like the book, it can be at times a stressful read, because of that lack of conventional plot structures I mentioned – it feels almost like a memoir of sorts, with the way it meanders, and sometimes the foreshadowing will have you jumping at shadows. Have patience, though, because the ending makes it all worthwhile. In newer novels, this whole book would probably be compressed into the first two chapters, but rather like I expressed about The Dragonbone Chair, I like the slower pacing. It feels all the more fulfilling, and the characters feel more real.
With my ever-growing reading list, you know I often don’t bother to read sequels, even of books that I enjoy. In the case of Earth’s Children, the rest of the series won’t just be going on my reading list – I intend The Valley of Horses to be the next thing I read (or at least I will be reading it very soon). If The Clan of the Cave Bear isn’t already on your reading list, I hope this review had convinced you to put it there. And do yourself a favor – don’t wait as long to get around to reading it as I did.
One thought on “The Clan of the Cave Bear Review”
Unfortunately, I didn’t have as positive an experience with this book. Some of the things that you enjoyed were frustrating for me. I’m glad I read it though, because it was an interesting book to examine from a structural perspective, and unique in a lot of ways.
Great review. I always like to hear a different opinion on something I’ve read.