The Mammoth Hunters: Jean M. Auel

★★½

Earth’s Children: Book III

As we embark on the third book in Ayla’s story, we pick up the narrative thread exactly where we left it. At the end of The Valley of Horses we left Ayla and Jondalar at the moment in which they are hailed by a hunting party; here we see the group approach and make their introductions. They are Mamutoi – Mammoth Hunters – and invite the young couple to visit their settlement, the Lion Camp. As she follows them, Ayla is torn between curiosity and fear, as these are the first Others she has seen except for Jondalar; but her anxiety will prove to have no foundation. She will find not only new friends among the Mamutoi but also a persistent and attractive new admirer.

That’s essentially the entire plot, and I’m beginning to understand that Auel is far more interested in describing the world her characters live in, than the characters themselves. The amount of detail she devotes to the environment truly is remarkable, showing a thorough knowledge of plants and animals, not only in terms of what would have been accessible to Ayla and her contemporaries, but also in how it would have been used. There’s no doubt that Auel’s recreation of the prehistoric lifestyle has been formed with great care and rigour, and Ayla’s journeys seem intended in part to introduce the reader to a wide variety of customs, rituals and ways to provide shelter for a community. Indeed, the world-building is magnificent. It has earned this book an extra star on its own merits.

But a novel should be primarily about people. With Ayla’s arrival at the Lion Camp, there’s scope for a wider cast of characters than we saw in the last book, from the affable Talut, a bear of a man who leads this group of Mamutoi, to the exuberant Deegie, who becomes Ayla’s first friend of her own age. For me, as for many, I suspect, the most poignant and memorable character was Rydag, the child with whom Ayla forms a special connection. Rydag’s experience mirrors that of Ayla in the first novel and Auel sensitively explores the various reactions to his presence in the midst of the Mamutoi.

Less successful, to me, was the character of the supposedly beguiling master-carver Ranec, who seems to have only two purposes. First, and most obviously, he is there to seduce Ayla, thereby causing a prolonged and increasingly tedious rift between her and Jondalar. His second purpose is to offer Ayla further grist for her musings on the purpose of procreation, and you’ll be glad to hear that she is well along the path to inventing the science of genetics. After her varied feats in the last book (when she was seventeen), she has slowed down a little but I’m delighted to announce that, during The Mammoth Hunters (at the age of eighteen), she invents the eye of the needle – to make the solid bone needles easier to use – and proceeds to domesticate the first dog. If I were taking this series seriously, I would feel that Ayla’s boundless talent for invention was completely and utterly implausible, concentrating the discoveries of thousands of years into one woman and two years. But I have chosen to see this series as a kind of allegory of the human journey rather than literally about a single woman’s overactive imagination. Surely she has to invent the wheel at some point during this series? It has to happen! To be fair, the burden of innovation was spread a little in this novel, as Jondalar managed to invent the bridle, so all the men out there can feel that they’ve done their bit too.

I’m beginning to grow weary of this series, although I’ve come so far that I now have to finish it out of principle. But the faults that I detected in the first two books aren’t being resolved with experience: if anything, they’re getting more pronounced. The writing vacillates uneasily between lengthy, explicit sex scenes and detached analysis of social hierarchies or the flora and fauna of the glacial steppes. I was going to quote from some of the sex scenes, but I really don’t think I can do so and keep a straight face. What, you really want me to? Prepare yourself. Put down your cup of coffee. Those of a sensitive disposition should look away now. Ahem. ‘Then he spread her twin mounds apart and guided his full and ready manhood into the deep and willing entrance of her womanhood with an agonising Pleasure that tore a cry from both of them.’ You see? And each of these scenes tends to last for about three pages, enough to make you yearn for the good old days when a woman would slowly remove her glove and then it’d be fade to black and we’d skip to breakfast the next morning. It feels as though pages from Fifty Shades of Grey have been accidentally mixed up with those of a paleoanthropological textbook.

To make matters worse, I feel that the characters are also growing less convincing. Ayla in the first book showed an intuitive understanding of emotion and nuance that she seems to have entirely lost here. Her interactions with Jondalar are painful on both sides, and not in the intended sense. How is it that two people – who’d be very young by today’s standards but are fully mature by those of their time – who have independently demonstrated such good sense and (in Jondalar’s case) such gracious, subtle understanding of the heart, are reduced to the kind of two-dimensional fluttering angst that properly belongs in a high school movie? Not only do we have to spend 500 of 700 pages watching them gazing mournfully at each other while engaging in extensive inward soliloquies along the lines of, “I love him / her so much! But he / she doesn’t love me any more and I have no idea why!” The truly annoying thing is that every other character in the entire novel can see perfectly well what’s going on but decides to steer clear, allegedly because ‘it’s down to them to sort it out’, but surely, in reality, because a simple well-placed word would have sorted everything out and deprived the book of a contrived but central plotline.

I also can’t help noticing that Ayla’s storyline has some marked similarities with that of Daenerys Targaryen. Both are striking blonde women who inspire blind devotion in the men around them but, more importantly, both are outsiders. On meeting new groups of people, they are looked down on or not taken seriously. Just as they face genuine danger, there is a helpful ex machina – in Dany’s case, the appearance of a huge fire-breathing dragon; in Ayla’s, the providential appearance of a cave lion which she then rides to the amazement and admiration etc. of all those around her – and then said woman is acknowledged as a powerful ally and dangerous enemy and given all the respect she deserves. Oh, and both live in a world dominated by a giant wall of ice.

I’m now halfway through. I will be doggedly carrying on, probably with a mounting sense of disbelief and annoyance, but you may have to wait a while for the next instalment. Let’s pause for a moment, at this midway point, and look back on those memories I have of my eleven-year-old schoolfriend poring over these books. Perhaps she was gripped by the strategies of mammoth hunting or the competing methods of flint-knapping. Or maybe, more prosaically, she was just fascinated by the minutely-described sex scenes. But let’s look on the bright side: perhaps I am being unjustly grumpy about the whole thing, and The Plains of Passage will have some searing brilliance in store for me.

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Last in this series – The Valley of Horses

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