This is quite possibly one of the most amazing books I have ever read and that in spite of the all too familiar plot.
The story follows a young human girl, Ayla, at the end of the last Ice Age as she grows up in unfamiliar surroundings. After her family are killed in an earthquake she survives the elements and against all the odds, eventually found and taken in by by a clan of travelling Neanderthals. Slowly, she assimilates herself into the clan, learning their customs and growing up as a Neanderthal child. Because of a feeling of negativity toward “The Others”, most of them are not particularly happy about the inclusion of one of them into their lives. Most of them though including her adopted mother Iza, clan leader Brun and holy man Creb accept her adoption.
Like any story with this general idea (I’m thinking Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai etc) she soon comes up against problems as her human instincts, so very different from the ways of the Neanderthal Clan, come into conflict with the rigid male dominated heirarchy of the tribe. Inadvertantly, Ayla is a disruption to the lives of the cosy existence of the Clan and other Neanderthal groups as she strives to learn way beyond the expectation of her position as a female, getting ideas above her station and exhibiting a curiosity upon which her adopted family frown. It soon brings her into conflict with Broud, the son of Brun and the pair would be at the centre of most conflicts in the book.
Despite being 600 pages long, it is not bloated and there always seems to be something happening. The characters are richly illustrated and you can really get an insight into the harsh world that the Clan lives in. Auel takes pride in explain the surroudings and the Ice Age world that Ayla inhabits. There is so much to absorb here that you forgive the times when very little happens. The conflict itself drives the plot effortlessly and for this Auel should be commended.
On the negative side, despite Auel’s research, there is a lot of conjecture because even now there is a lot about the Neanderthal that is still a mystery to us. This is not the writer’s fault, but I feel this book will date with any substantial discoveries on the horizon. Despite keeping her feet firmly on the ground and avoiding spiritual and fantasy elements, there is one scene toward the end of the book that did unfortunately dabble in a vision that we would identify as modern technology. I felt it was out of place; either make this a fantasy novel or leave it out entirely.
This book is a regular set text in schools around the western world. It has also courted controversy because of a single scene featuring the taboo of child rape. I must say that the act was never intended to be titillating and it is handled perfectly and fully in context of the wider story. Those who might turn away from a book on that basis would do well to realise that in the world that Ayla inhabits, it is common for females to give birth to their first child aged around 11 or 12.