The Land of Painted Caves

The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel

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So I held out hope for this last volume of a series that I’ve devoted about 200 hours to…and got disappointed yet again. This book had all of the same problems I noted in reviews of the other books in the series: repetition, a protagonist with no flaws, a lack of compelling conflict, and a deluge of overly-researched detail. Now, I know the pedantic details might be defended by fantasy buffs as “world-building,” but I guess the problem is this: I didn’t find the world Auel built to be all that interesting. Its novelty wore off in one book, and there didn’t seem to be anything all that new or creative about it, especially when I compare it to dystopias or other fantasy settings. It was just prehistoric nature in all its unsurprising glory. At least there was only one sex scene in this book.

Most of the action of the book consists of Ayla traveling with Zelandoni and a small group to see a bunch of sacred caves with ancient paintings in them. She meets lots of people and solves their problems. One particularly disturbing episode concerns a small group of men who go around raping and pillaging. They are eventually brought to justice through a mob execution.

The big drama of the last part of the book comes when Ayla catches Jondalar having sex with another woman. Now, all “marriages” among these people are pretty much considered open marriages, so everyone agrees that he had every right to sleep around, and Ayla would have too. What happened was that Ayla got really busy with her priestess training, so Jondalar’s “needs” weren’t being met, and this hussy kept throwing herself at him, so he fell into an affair. I really don’t like the implications here, about working mothers not having time to keep a man interested, about men being entitled to sex, about easy opportunities for casual sex being “irresistible” to people in committed relationships, but because of the society’s definition of marriage as not sexually exclusive, I’m not going to focus too much on these aspects of it. The real problem that this whole debacle reveals is the couple’s horrible lack of communication. Until Ayla got too busy, niether she nor Jondalar had ever acted on their right to sleep around, and they had been monogamous and exclusive. But they’d never talked about it, never made any explicit agreement to be either monogamous or nonmonogamous, despite the fact that jealousy had nearly driven them apart once before. And on top of the fact that they created the conditions for this problem themselves by not defining the terms of their relationship, they deal with it in just about the worst way possible: by cutting off all communication. After the confrontation, Jondalar basically gives Ayla the silent treatment, even though he’s the one more in the wrong.

This conflict is finally resolved by Ayla getting borderline suicidal and going along with a stupid idea of trying to reach the spirit world through taking some psychotropic herb that she knows is dangerous, and almost dying. Jondalar “saves” her by hugging her back to life and crying over her limp body. This is a scene that’s basically recycled almost exactly from a previous book. When she wakes up, they make up and everything is fine.

What I don’t understand is that this resolution is presented as super romantic. Auel goes on about how everyone who hears this story wishes they had someone who loved them as much as Ayla and Jondalar love each other, as evidenced by the story. But the story is not romantic at all. Do you know what is romantic? Communication. Negotiation. Apologies. All the things Ayla and Jondalar seem incapable of, and that no relationship can survive without. I guess I should be thankful to Auel for proving to me once and for all how much sexier realistic relationships are than mystical spiritual connections like the ones portrayed in fairy tales with “true love’s kiss” waking the maiden.

The other main issue in the novel is that Ayla gets a revelation from the Mother that proves what she suspected all along: sex makes babies. Telling the people causes problems almost immediately, raising concerns about the legitimacy of children and the arrousing the instinct of men to be possessive and jealous. The lead priestess tries to explain these issues away, but doesn’t seem entirely successful, and it seems clear that this revelation will lead to more restrictive sexual practices eventually.

I’ve said several times that the thing I was waiting for, the reason I kept picking up the next book in the series, was because I wanted to see Ayla’s Clan again. No such luck. There was a dream sequence that said basically the same thing we’d heard in previous books: that the clan is destined to die out and their only legacy will be the children that they have produced through interbreeding with humans. Woop de doo. After all the hints and fake-outs from the previous novels, this lack of resolution really made me feel cheated. Once again, Auel refuses to give faithful readers the satisfaction they have earned.

A pet peeve from the audiobook I listened to. There were many references to Ayla having an accent of some kind, but I thought the accent that the voice actress gave her was utterly ridiculous. It was kind of a baroque, a light trilling accent with extra rolled R’s. Given Ayla’s linguistic background, this choice made no sense to me. She had no spoken language at all in childhood, but spoke in sign language, and learned to speak as an adult. To me, that means that she should be stumbling over her words all the time, and have real difficulty with grammar and sentence structure. She was about five when she lost her own people and began living with the Clan, so I guess it’s barely possible that she had enough early exposure to spoken language to be able to learn its basics later, and I can imagine it might be annoying to read and write about a protagonist who is barely functional with language. However, Auel insists that Ayla is super gifted with languages and picks up several of them quickly, because Ayla must be perfect and exceptional in every way. Anyway, I thought her voice would sound more like that of a deaf person or a stroke victim than a Spanish or Scottish accent. The problem wouldn’t be extra sounds inserting themselves, but a general tone-deaf lack of understanding of how to make sounds at all, kind of a lazy tongue. Trilled R’s are an especially hard sound to make, so it doesn’t make any sense that someone with such a complete lack of language background, someone who’s almost feral, would be making that sound of her own accord when she doesn’t have to.

Here’s my final verdict on the Earth’s Children series and then I’ll finally put it to rest forever. Each book is worst than the last. The first one might be worth reading, if prehistoric peoples interest you. It ends in kind of a cliffhanger, so if that bothers you, then read the second. But stop there, please. Learn from my mistake. Don’t waste hundreds of hours subjecting yourself to this pointless, meandering, repetitive, conflict-free, pedantic, ideologically questionable series.

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4 thoughts on “The Land of Painted Caves

  1. If I had ever been inclined to read this book (which I likely wouldn’t have, based on your reviews of earlier books in the series and the fact that the premise doesn’t really interest me), this part right here would have certainly made turn away with “ickiness” and a slight shudder: “Jondalar “saves” her by hugging her back to life and crying over her limp body.”. Yuck.

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