Book Review: The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel (Series, #6)
All of Ayla’s unique life situations–from being adopted by the Clan to living in a valley by herself to her long Journey with Jondalar–have been combining to make her into a great, powerful woman. In this final entry in the Earth’s Children series we witness her transformation from Ayla to Zelandoni shaman of the Zelandonii.
As a fan of the Earth’s Children series since the age of 15, there is just no way I can review this epically disappointing, long-awaited finale to the series without spoilers. So, be warned, this whole post is going to contain spoilers, because there is just no way I can possibly not talk about everything that went horribly awry here.
First there is the incredibly huge issue of plot. The book is divided into three sections. The first section is entirely Ayla wandering around looking at caves with Zelandoni. Which would be fine. If the caves had anything particularly unique about them or anything exciting happened in the caves or if we weren’t told repeatedly “here’s a horse painting, here’s a cave lion painting, here are dots that mean something to the Zelandoni but I won’t ever tell you what they mean because where would the fun in that be?” Oh sure, there are hints that something more exciting might happen, but nothing ever does. It’s like Auel thought about putting action in, but then decided it’d be way easier to talk more about the badly painted and scratched in horses in these caves that for some reason the Zelandonii think are so incredibly sacred. Oh yeah. I remember why. Because they’re supposedly the vagina of the Earth Mother. Think about that for a second. These people are worshiping in sacred vaginas.
Then we have the second section which mysteriously jumps forward four years in Ayla’s acolyte training because for some reason we couldn’t possibly be interested in that, oh no, there’s nothing interesting about ceremonies or studies. Instead, we get to jump ahead four years and go on Ayla’s Donier tour. Do you know what Ayla’s Donier tour is? Going around Zelandonii territory to look at MORE CAVES. This traveling could possibly be interesting. We have foreshadowing multiple times that something bad is going to happen to Ayla, particularly that a band of evil bad rapist men are going to kidnap her and drag her off. But no. They grab her and Jondalar somehow miraculously goes from in front of the evil band of rapist men to behind them, breaks the leather-thong assisted choke-hold the dude has on Ayla, and saves her from them. Then the Zelandoni beat them to death in an instance of mob justice. Well. At least something sort of happened?
The third section jumps ahead two more years (skipping almost all the rest of Ayla’s acolyte training) to yet another summer meeting, which Ayla has to come to part-way through because she had to stay back to complete her final assignment of training. Ayla has a vision in a cave (oh, we’ll get to that in a minute) and then goes to the summer meeting where she walks in on Jondalar getting naked sexy head from the one woman in the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii immune to liking Ayla. No, I am not joking. Jondalar, the oh I am Ayla’s soulmate and we will be together forever and I love her so much has totally been cheating on her for almost the entire last two years of her acolyte training. Because she was busy. Because a man has needs. Because the ho offered herself to him and why on earth would Jondalar say no? I am not joking, that is the tone of the book in the whole revelation of cheating thing. PLUS, the whole cave knew about it and hid it from Ayla to protect her feelings. Ayla, naturally, knows jealousy is taboo in Zelandonii society, so instead of confronting the cheating bastard she first has sex at a Mother Ceremony (ahem, orgy) with the dude Jondalar hates most in the Ninth Cave, and then she decides life isn’t worth living and tries to kill herself with the Clan root. This from a woman who has three horses, a wolf, and a freaking 6 year old daughter to look after. The only thing that saves her, naturally, is Jondalar’s undying love. It took all of my self-control not to throw my kindle across the room. Well, and also my intense love for my kindle.
So for two-thirds of the book nothing really happens, and then in the last third our two heroes both turn into loathsome people. Good. Times.
Ok, so, the plot takes a complete nose-dive off Niagara Falls without a barrel while holding your beloved kitten. What about the supposedly key element of the book and series? What world-changing thing does this special woman, this powerful shaman, bring about? Allow me to quote the new verse of the Earth Mother’s Song that is revealed to Ayla at the climax:
Her last Gift, the Knowledge that man has his part.
His need must be spent before new life can start.
It honors the Mother when the couple is paired,
Because woman conceives when Pleasures are shared.
Earth’s Children were blessed.
The Mother could rest. (page 540)
Yes. That is right, people. The reason for this woman existing is to reveal to these dim-wits that sex, not the Earth Mother mixing spirits, causes babies. Allow me to repeat that. Ayla’s big contribution to pre-historic society is to teach these people the birds and the bees.
I wish I could say it gets better from there, but it doesn’t. First Ayla has to convince the other shamans (Zelandoni) that this is true. They, naturally, don’t want to believe it. The lead Zelandoni convinces them that they must tell the people in a huge ceremony, because this will be life-changing. Then we have, quite possibly, the most eyeball-widening, face-palming, head:desk inducing passage I have ever read. The ceremony, meetings, and Mother’s Celebration that go along with it. I won’t put you through the pain of all of it, but allow me to show you a good sample. The passage in which the lead Zelandoni explains what to call the men who are also parents:
He is a far-mother, a fa-ther. It was also chosen to indicate that while women are the Blessed of Doni, men may now think of themselves as the Favored of Doni. It is similar to ‘mother,’ but the fa sound was chosen to make it clear that it is a name for a man, just as ‘fa’lodge’ is the name for the men’s place. (page 676-7)
I just…..there are no words for the inanity of it all.
Then, of course, all the men overnight turn into possessive, abusive, over-aggressive douchebags since now they know that their sperm has magical powers. The book ends with the very heavy-handed suggestion that this revelation is what caused the move from matriarchy to patriarchy.
Oh, but it gets better. To put one final touch of absurdity on the whole thing, we also finally get to find out what happened to the Neanderthals (Clan). Ayla still has the black stone that contains a piece of every Clan member’s spirit in it from when she was a medicine woman for them. A vision reveals to her that when Broud cast her out with the death curse, she forgot to leave the stone behind and thus caused the death of the entire Clan. Yeah. Really. That’s what happens. All of this build-up, and we find out that Ayla reveals the birds and the bees, kills matriarchy, and kills the Neanderthals. What. The. Fuck.
As if the meandering plot and completely inane and horrifying huge reveals weren’t bad enough, something happened to Auel’s writing style. I like to call it “let me give everything really long names and repeat myself a lot” Just one example of the plethora of overly long names is “Zelandoni Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother.” That would be less painful, maybe, if Auel didn’t also repeat herself all the time. Almost every time the lead Zelandoni shows up, we are reminded that she is a very large woman. Almost every time Ayla speaks, someone notices her foreign accent. Almost every time someone sees Jonayla (kill me now with that name), someone notices that she has Jondalar’s eyes. Enough already! We know! Stop telling us!
Between the meandering plot, completely what the fuck ending, and simply bad writing, I can’t recommend this book to anyone. My best advice to fans of the series, or those interested in it, is to pretend that it ends with The Mammoth Hunters and Jondalar riding off into the sunset with Ayla. Just pretend it stops there. Ignore his people. Ignore Ayla’s calling. Ignore the Journey. Just ignore the whole thing. Take the characters and world back from Auel who completely mistreated them and let them exist in your mind the way they were at the end of The Mammoth Hunters. Do not waste your time or hurt your brain reading this book. Just…..don’t.
1 out of 5 stars
Previous Books in Series:
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Valley of the Horses
The Mammoth Hunters
The Plains of Passage
The Shelters of Stone