The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel (Crown: $19.95; 645 pp.)
“All good books . . . are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one . . . it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy . . . the people and the places and how the weather was,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in 1934. “The Mammoth Hunters,” Jean M. Auel’s sequel to “The Clan of the Cave Bear” (1980) and “The Valley of Horses” (1982), often manifests the kind of veracity and inclusiveness that Hemingway relished. Although the novel contains flaws, Auel engrossingly depicts prehistoric times, the daily existence of cave men and the turbulent romance between two Ice Age itinerants.
Once again, the protagonist is 18-year-old Ayla, a nubile, intuitively intelligent blonde who was expelled from her Clan, a tribelike unit. Despite hardships, Ayla remained sanguine and charitable, and she proved it by tending to a strapping young stranger named Jondalar after a lion mauled him. Passion steadfastly binds them, so Ayla and Jondalar traverse Ukraine together to find a suitable new home.
The couple eventually enter the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi people, where they are hospitably--and rather guardedly--welcomed. Ayla’s guilelessness, as well as her protean talents, quickly endear her to these mammoth hunters, for she surpasses everyone they have ever encountered. Ayla’s tame horses docilely obey her commands; she slings stones and stalks wild animals with greater prowess than most men, and her astounding curative powers banish illness.
Both Ayla and Jondalar assimilate themselves into the congenial Lion Camp with ease. Humaneness distinguishes their Mamutoi hosts whose “gentle(ness) with each other’s souls” belies their predatory instincts, and Auel describes them with thoughtful precision. Particularly prominent in the narrative are Talut, a judicious camp leader, a mute but responsive child named Rydag, and Mamut, the grizzled shaman fully aware of Ayla’s uniqueness.
Unfortunately, two male Lion Camp residents disrupt the settlement’s tranquillity because of their feelings about Ayla. Frebec stridently denounces the girl due to her former association with Clan individuals, since they are considered barbaric. The roguish carver Ranec also threatens Ayla’s security, for his flirtation with her outrages Jondalar and imperils the couple’s love.
Glaring incongruities occasionally mar this story. Jondalar uses the word “bifacially” as if it were common Neanderthal parlance. Even worse, some of Ayla’s medical expertise sounds absurdly contemporary. She performs the Heimlich maneuver and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and she cites the heart as “the strong muscle in the chest that pulsed . . . and made the blood move. . . .”
Auel sometimes supplants her nicely spare, lyrical style with a more inflated one that seems awkward in comparison. For instance, she observes that Ranec “thought of (Ayla) in ardent hyperbole,” which is merely an elaborate reference to lust. Fortunately, the author’s usual eloquence makes such lapses negligible.
“The Mammoth Hunters” displays imperfections, yet it is audaciously original and ambitious. Most novelists would select conventional locales for a tale about beleaguered lovers, but Auel daringly situates Ayla and Jondalar in an epoch popularly linked with comical, stereotyped images like the Flintstones. Today, many people assume that Neanderthals were equally obtuse and undiscerning as the creatures they hunted. Nevertheless, Auel disregarded these potential deterrents and proceeded to craft a compelling story about sentient human beings contending with nature and each other.
Every integral aspect of Ice Age life is discussed here: garb, ceremonial rituals, recreation, superstitions, food preservation, hygiene and communication. Auel smoothy integrates this information into the plot, always offering pertinent facts without undue pedantry. As Hemingway might say, the comprehensiveness of “The Mammoth Hunters” ensures that “it all belongs to you.”