Historical Fiction

The Mammoth Hunters, Jean M Auel

2015-09-08 11.57.15-1I’m conflicted about this book.  At first I assumed that it was written for a teenage audience, which it seems perfectly suited to, until I got to the first sex scene which was perhaps more graphic than I would expect for that genre. And then the second sex scene and then… well, let’s just say that there is a lot of sex.  But then it seems remarkably simple as a book for adults – although there is definitely a time and a place for a simple, if very long, read.

Set in a time when mammoths roamed the world, the plot centres around a woman called Ayla who was brought up by one tribe (the Clan) who were fairly primitive, didn’t speak a verbal language though they communicated in signs and where women were totally subservient to men.  She was ethnically different to them and, eventually, was chucked out of the tribe for being so different.  She then lived on her own, tamed a lion cub and two horses and before meeting another lone traveller called Jondolar who came from far away, was more ethnically similar and who taught her how to talk.  All that happens before the story begins. Further research reveals this is the third book in the series so I imagine this plot will be expanded in the previous novels.

We then see the two of them fall madly in love and set out to find another tribe. They eventually find the Lion Camp who are very open-minded and welcome them in. Here, men and women are treated equally and tribes are ruled by brothers and sisters rather than lovers. BUT THEN it turns out that Ayla is devastatingly beautiful so another man becomes a rival for her affections.  Queue a long, tedious love triangle that is drawn out over 700 pages to the point that you just want to bash people’s heads together.  It is this love triangle that makes the plot seem really young adulty to me.  It is just so protracted. And everyone else in the camp knows what is going on and does nothing to intervene, which would clearly never happen.

That said, the book is a really interesting imagining of what life must have been like for primitive people.  If you are interested in flint, there are some really long passages about the development of flint tools.  We also learn a lot about how to dye hides, build mud huts and keep clean when lacking a power-shower.  Some of it seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but then maybe primitive people had developed saunas and I should just be better informed.  It also reached the point where it felt a bit “oh god, they’ve just invented ANOTHER thing” – I had got the point that they were having to be inventive and it didn’t need to be laboured to this extent.

It is also interesting the way the author plays with the idea of different types of humans at different stages of development and imagines how they may have interacted.  A lot of the book focusses on the themes of similarity, difference and humanity. The imagined customs are also vivid. For instance, the author imagines that all the tribes would have had percussive music, but that the rhythms they use would be very different according to which tribe they were in.  I had never really considered cave-man music, but it is a really interesting idea.

The author has gone to great lengths to build the mindset of the characters, but has clearly struggled keeping language appropriate to the time period. For instance, Ayla is a healer (luckily) and able to name all these different plants and remedies, but when she has to ask the Lion Camp people what they are known as in their language, they reply with English plant names generally based on Latin roots. But the Romans hadn’t been invented yet. Geraniums, anyone? In fairness, I don’t know how else the author could have done this but it jarred because so much of the rest of the book is so firmly anchored in the time period. There are also a few points where the author clearly intervenes to explain something directly from a modern point of view, which is a bit of a shame as part of the fun of the book is seeing the world through their mindset.  But generally the imagination that has gone into building this mindset is brilliant.

My other concern with the book is that Ayla is so relentlessly special.  By the end of it, if I heard how she was “chosen by the Mother” one more time I think the book would have been rapidly defenestrated.  I like my heroes to be interesting, and she is certainly that, but she’s just a bit perfect for my liking.

All in all, an interesting read but I’m not in a rush to read the sequel.

2 thoughts on “The Mammoth Hunters, Jean M Auel

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