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The Land of Painted Caves

By Jean M. Auel

Random House Canada, 757 pages, $35

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Far into The Land of Painted Caves, its heroine undergoes a shamanic journey into the sacred caves. The effects of hallucinogens, darkness, claustrophobia and psychic tension combine: "She was caught in a whirlpool. ... It sucked her down ... the river closed over her head, and everything was black. ... She was in a deep, empty, wrenching void; flying faster than she could comprehend." The reader is flung into Ayla's inner world, doubting whether she'll make it through. But this moment of ambivalence and tension occurs only after 536 pages, throughout which the static certainties of Ayla's world remain unshaken.

Auel's first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, created a world where a five-year-old girl, genus Homo sapiens, lost her family in an earthquake and was picked up by Neanderthal people who reared her as their own. Vital, visceral conflicts ensued. The Land of Painted Caves frequently circles back to Ayla's early life, and each time the prose of the later novel is energized by memories of the earlier. Few saga writers sustain the level of a first book with subsequent volumes: Philip Pullman, perhaps, or Anthony Powell - certainly not John Galsworthy, Mervyn Peake or J.K. Rowling. Auel is not the only author whose last book in a series is significantly longer than her first. The Land of Painted Caves could be told in half the space.

As part of her training, Ayla has to visit all the paleolithic painted caves around the Dordogne. For Ayla, the painters belong to a long-forgotten past. Her people are closer to our time than to early human history - but not half as close as Auel suggests. Her first book was a convincing reconstruction of the deep past: Ayla's cave tour seems closer to a modern coach tour. Every cave must be visited and described. The intellectuals of the party discuss age, provenance and possible authorship of each painting with a surprisingly enlightened detachment. The less high-minded have brought tea to brew, a picnic and little pads for sitting on the hard rocks. Outside the caves, life among the Zelandonii is remarkably suburban. Certainly they hunt, and Ayla is an expert gatherer of medicinal herbs - here the author's knowledge is exhaustive and convincing - but they spend much more time worrying about their personal relationships (though fortunately, counselling is readily available). Doubtless motherhood has been an all-consuming topic throughout human history, but perhaps one dirty nappy and one milky overspill would get the point across. And if modern hunter-gatherer groups are any indication, it seems unlikely that our ancestors would have made quite such a fuss.

The world of the Zelandonii doesn't feel like the Stone Age, nor does it correspond to known hunter-gatherer lifeways. We don't know what language these people spoke, but they probably used punchier words than "swelling manhood" and "eliminating solid waste." There are other anachronisms. One family is down with measles, a disease of far later post-agricultural societies. It's unsettling to find dinners served on plates, or people packing clothes for a journey. When Ayla's mother-in-law has to give up her own cave, she spends days sorting out her possessions deciding what to throw out.

The surprise occasioned among the Zelandonii by Ayla's appearance, with her three tame horses, her pet wolf, her strange accent, her glitteringly handsome husband and beautiful daughter, soon becomes formulaic. Two-thirds of the novel is taken up with visits to families in variously numbered caves (Ayla's family live in the Ninth Cave). Everyone is astonished by Ayla, as well they might be. She is a great hunter, a wonderful healer, her "instinct for language and ability to memorize were phenomenal," her spiritual powers are awesome and she is astonishingly beautiful. No wonder she makes a few enemies. But she never elicits the response the reader felt for the alien child among the Clan.

The Land of the Painted Caves is narrated by a modern, who sometimes moves in close to her characters and is sometimes separated from them by intervening millennia. Chunks of scholarship indicate extensive research, but the novel never quite apprehends the sheer difference of the deep past. The most vivid image I carry away is that of Auel marvelling over the amazing cave paintings of the Dordogne, deeply appreciative of their artistry and spirituality, then returning to her hotel to shower and change for dinner. Ayla's tour reflects modern angst too accurately; there is never quite the imaginative leap that transports us to somewhere far other.

Margaret Elphinstone's ninth novel, The Gathering Night, is set among the hunter-gatherers of Mesolithic Scotland. Previous novels include Voyageurs, set in 19th-century Canada, and The Sea Road, set at the time of the Vinland voyages. She lives in Galloway, southwest Scotland.

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