Thursday, 22 March 2012

Clan of the Cave Bear

Does anything beat that moment when you realise a favourite author has a new book out?  I was so excited when I saw that Jean M Auel’s extraordinary Earth’s Children™ series was at last coming to an end with The Land of Painted Caves, but I have to admit that the damning reviews on Amazon gave me pause.  I passed up on the hardback, which I would otherwise have bought, but picked up the paperback the other day and last night plodded to the end. 

Sadly, the reviews were justified.  This was such a disappointing end to a series that started so spectacularly.  The Clan of the Cave Bear is an amazing feat of imagination and I have bored friends for years about it. Auel takes the little evidence we have for the people who lived during the last Ice Age and creates an utterly convincing world so that by the time you get to the end, you feel that life then must have been exactly like that.  Isn’t that what we want from a historical novel?  

I first read Clan of the Cave Bear in Jakarta in 1984.  All of us in the house read it and passed it on, and by the time it was my turn, I’d heard so much about it, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.  I read it on this verandah, with the rain hammering down on the roof, and I only have to look at the cover now to be transported back to that wicker chair and the stifling heat and the cries of the street sellers pushing their carts along the gang outside the gate.

Lots of my favourite books are associated with places. Georgette Heyer makes me think of the outback Queensland.  Bizarre, I know, but I used to have a couple of hours off after lunch when it was too hot to go outside, and there just happened to be a shelf of books including hers in my room.  

I read my first Mary Stewart – This Rough Magic – in an big attic room I shared with my cousins and brothers in Scotland one wet summer holiday.  The roof was unlined, so there were just splintery rafters over head, and the boys played James Taylor’s Rockabye Sweet Baby James endlessly at the other end of the room.

The first Mills & Boon I really enjoyed was called Devil Within, by Catherine George, and I read that in Raffles Hotel in Singapore on my way back to Jakarta.  (That was a “light bulb moment” for me.  Until then, I’d only ever read them as a kind of joke, wrinkling my nose at those heroes who threw the heroine across the bed while she was shrieking ‘Damn you!’ but she ended up loving it really.  Devil Within made me realise that a romance didn’t have to be tacky.)   I’ve still got that copy and I can’t read it without thinking about that old fashioned room with the ceiling fan slapping overhead. 

Of course, I’ve got lots of favourite books that I’ve read at home, but they don’t have the same associations.  There’s something about being away, when you’re already in a different world, and you get transported to yet another, that burns the whole experience of reading into your mind. 

Do you have any books that instantly remind you of where you first read them?


  1. I do this too! There are certain books I hate giving up b/c of the memories attached to them. I think there are some books you have to read at the right time in your life for them to make the right impression on you.
    Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Cruisie and Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving make me think of my Junior Year Abroad in Spain. I had refused to let myself buy any more books in English, so I read those two until the covers were almost falling off.
    Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley always makes me think of sitting in my little apartment in Cleveland waiting for electricians and repairmen to come. I had just moved there to be with my boyfriend (now husband) and I had no friends, no working phone, no job, and no Internet. So I read. A lot. Thankfully, I really enjoyed the book!

  2. I agree about the Jean M Auel - and how I loved the others. I read Clan of the Cavebear when I was 12 or 13, it one of THE books passed around class (along with Judy Blume's Forever) and we were all mesmerised. Years later when I was a bookseller we told customers, quite seriously, that she had died - we all thought it was true she was so long between books.
    Books that take me places include I Capture the Castle, read in a friend's mother's attic flat in Glasgow, a Bohemian, lamp lit room that totally suited the book. More recently I read the third Hunger Games book in a tent during the rainiest, windiest camping holiday ever experienced. That dark, violent book was the highlight of the holiday and when I reread it I swear I could smell the wet canvas!

  3. Loved these stories! Sympathies on the wet camping holiday, though! The smell of canvas brings back a whole host of other memories, but can't say I've ever read successfully in a tent. I like to read in a comfortable chair with a decent light, although at a push am prepared to consider a sun bed in the shade ...

  4. Oh, I'm hearing you on Clan Of The Cave Bear. Can't bring myself to read the last two unfortunately. Books and places - the first that springs to mind is discovering Nancy Mitford in an English language bookstore in Geneva and reading Love In a Cold Climate on the train to Chamonix, shrieking (as Nancy would say) with laughter. And I'll never forget reading Wuthering Heights as a 13 yr old, at home in Melbourne on a cold winter weekend. For some reason my mother allowed me to lie on the couch all weekend reading (maybe she loved it as much as I do. Will never forget the utter satisfaction of that book. Great memories.

  5. I totally agree about Land of the Painted Caves. The actual story could have been condensed to about thirty pages and the rest should be delivered as a lecture. I'm afraid I've been using it as an example to myself of how not to write a historical novel, which is a tragedy, seeing as Clan of the Cave Bear is a shining example of just how good they can be.

    I find that as well as bringing back the memories of a place, a book can also bring back the emotions I was experiencing when I first read it. I first read Sharon Penman's Here Be Dragons when I was staying with a friend, waiting for my A' level results to come out. I can't pick it up now without feeling the same stomach-churning mixture of anxiety and excitement.

  6. Yes, it's so sad Land of Painted Caves is such an example of what not to do with all your research. I kept waiting for something to happen and it never did. Lost count of repeated scenes (people being amazed to see her controlling animals etc) and what about every scene needing to change something ... don't get me started!

    I read Here Be Dragons in Scotland, when I'd sold my flat in London, and hadn't yet moved to York. I remember sobbing when Llewellyn died and had to take myself out for a walk to calm down. No 'literary' novel ever had that effect on me. Have very soft spot for Sharon Penman as it was reading The Sunne in Splendour that made me decide to do a PhD in medieval history, in spite of having no background for it at all.

    And Louise, reading - and enjoying! - Wuthering Heights at 13??? Am impressed. I can't come at the Brontes at all. I know it's heresy, but I can't bear 19th-century novels (apart from Jane Austen, and I think of her as part of the long 18th century really!). All those long paragraphs and that wordy dialogue - ugh.