When I was 14 or 15, my mom gave me The Clan of the Cave Bear for Christmas. It was a paperback copy, one of those editions with a short, thick spine and thin paper with the texture of construction paper.
I loved that book.
I must've read it at least ten times during my teenage years. I was enthralled with how the neanderthals lived, the hunting and the treating of hides and the making of tools. Their close interaction with the world, and of course, Ayla's story. I did move on and read the three other books that were published during those years, and I liked many things about them. But the sequels, especially The Mammoth Hunters and on, lost the qualities I adored about the first two: that feeling of entering a place in time and in the world that was almost totally foreign, except for people and animals. Reading about how pre-historic people lived—how they survived and the things they invented to make their world bearable—was deeply fascinating to me, but once Alya finally re-joined her species, that sense of things being foreign yet familiar slipped away. The books started to feel like they were full of contemporary problems in a prehistoric setting.
It tells the story of Rosamund Gale, who is an archaeologist working in France. She manages to locate a cave that contains two skeletons: one that of a homo sapiens and one of a neanderthal, but lying together in the same grave. She discovers very soon into the dig that she is expecting—a surprise baby—and this puts a wrinkle in her plans, as the excavation will take much longer than nine months. She needs to secure funding for the dig, and oversee the dig, and try to control the narrative about the dig, but her pregnancy might complicate the process.
It also tells the story of Girl, a neanderthal living with her small family. Girl's story starts with a bison hunt that alters the shape of her family, and progresses in a brutal way; losing one person tilts the balance toward near destruction.
The story alternates between Girl's experiences and Rosamund's. Girl is trying to survive the ice-age summer on her own, while Rosamund is trying to both navigate the archeology politics that surround the dig and actually process the site. Rosamund is a scientist with a new theory about the neanderthals: she posits they were much more like homo sapiens than we might guess. She wants to find clues in the sight that support her theories, and the two skeletons, facing each other, will hopefully do just that.
I have mixed feelings about this novel. On one hand, I loved Girl's story. I loved stepping into her prehistoric world, which the author creates with a vividness that captures both the peril and the beauty of that time. Girl is brave and strong, and the invented neanderthal social structures and ways of thinking were intriguing.
I was less enamored of Rosamund's story. I was hoping for more details about the dig itself, of her down in the dirt with a tiny brush. I wanted to gather a sense of what that feels like, unearthing different bones and artifacts inside of a cave. Instead, much of her story was the archaeology politics and her struggle to find a balance between doing the work that she loves and trying to come to grips with motherhood. I think the story took this shape to create both a contrast and a connection between Rosamund and Girl: so much time between them, such different life struggles, and yet a similarity, too. They are each striving to find a way to live successfully within their society. But I never felt a strong connection to Rosamund's story, whereas Girl's gripped me utterly.
Maybe the difference was that in the face of such extreme suffering and difficulty on Girl's part, Rosamund's struggles felt a little bit...pale? I wanted Rosamund to have more of a glimpse of Girl's life, to gather details from the dig itself instead of there being just a few hints at connections for the reader to make.
More archeology, less Ikea.
That said, I'm glad I read this book. I can almost write "if only for Girl's story," but I do appreciate it in its layered construction. Just the straightforward neanderthal story itself would've felt far less complex without the contrast with our modern world.
So: so close to a book I could absolutely relish. I guess Clan of the Cave Bear will have to continue standing as the pre-history historical-novel measuring stick for me.