Monday, May 20, 2013

The Shelters of Stone: Fool Me Once, Shame on You...

After a decade of impressive productivity, few would blame Jean Auel for wanting a rest.  The Plains of Passage alone must have been a beast from a research and storyline standpoint.  Its length is dangerously close to twice the length of The Clan of the Cave Bear.

So who could blame Auel if she took a year off before starting the long-anticipated "Ayla meets the Zelandonii" novel?  If she approached it fresh, the story would only be better for it.  By the time I read Auel's first four novels, two years had already elapsed since The Plains of Passage, so I would have to wait, oh, another three maybe?

And so the wait began.

As the years passed, I frequented an Earth's Children message board, where people started to question whether the fifth novel would ever be released.  Now and then Jean Auel's son would pop in to inform us of her progress (which boiled down to "No she's not dead.  Yes she's still working on it"), but Internet-averse Auel remained at a distance.  The delay was attributed to many things: the discovery of the Chauvet cave in the mid-1990s; health problems in her family; a desire to lecture at events and spend time with her grandchildren.

I stopped coming to the message board for a while.  Then one day in the early 2000s I returned and learned that the fifth novel was coming!  Fans had speculated for years, and now we would finally find out what happened!

As it turned out, Jean Auel's time delay would prove costly.  For not only did it cause her to lose the taste and flow of her series, but it also allowed her fans to come up with alternate -- often superior -- resolutions to the conflicts that she had created.  The major conflicts that she had set up were:
  • How the oh-so-superior Zelandonii would respond to the news that Ayla was raised by the Clan and had a half-Clan son.  Would they threaten to exile Ayla, and would Jondalar have to join her?
  • How Marona, the woman Jondalar left at the altar, so to speak, would respond to Jondalar's return.  In The Valley of Horses, she was built up as a rather formidable woman with a big temper.
  • Whether Zelandoni -- once Zolena, the last woman Jondalar loved -- would feel jealous or threatened by Jondalar's love for Ayla.
  • Whether there would be any confrontations between the Zelandonii and a local Clan.
After 12 long years, The Shelters of Stone finally premiered.  Expected to make a swan dive, it instead made a belly flop.  It sold well, but punctured the dreams of countless devoted fans.  Despite the build up, and Auel's promise that the Zelandonii were unlike any tribe that Ayla had ever seen, I find The Shelters of Stone to be Auel's most forgettable novel.

Which is not to say that it is an objectively bad novel.  I actually prefer it to The Plains of Passage, given that it features human interaction over long, ponderous descriptions of scenery.  However, it definitely fails to live up to the promise that was hinted at as far back as The Valley of Horses.  Moreover, Ayla herself would fail to live up to the "greatness" that others saw in her, most notably Mamut.

Plot Synopsis

Ayla and Jondalar finally arrive at the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, where Ayla meets Jondalar's extended kin and gets a look at "big city" neolithic life.  She also meets Zelandoni, First Among Those Who Serve the Mother, who (predictably) sees a greater destiny for Ayla than that of a mate and mother.

The novel covers nearly a year in the life of the Zelandonii, and includes events such as a massive funeral, the Zelandonii Summer Meeting, the discovery of a new cave, Ayla and Jondalar's mating, and the birth of Ayla's second child.  Along the way, Ayla encounters Jondalar's old flame, Marona; his former rival, now called Madroman; and his intriguing, never-before-mentioned cousin, Brukeval, whom Ayla quickly surmises is part Clan.  

The Good

1.  Ayla Returns to Slightly More Human Form.  Nothing like pregnancy to make a character clumsy and vulnerable!  Seriously, Ayla receives a welcome reduction to human size after having been a psychic superhero in The Plains of Passage.  She gets duped (rather uncharacteristically) into wearing something humiliating, feels nervous that Jondalar's people will force her to leave, and is unable to save one of her patients.  We even get a taste of what her "unusual" accent sounds like to others, which basically involves rolling her Rs.

The one off note is that while Ayla's pregnancy is documented, she shows curiously little interest in her daughter, either before or after she is born.  After the birth scene, one would think that Ayla would take a few moments to gaze at her daughter in wonder, note how she is like and different from Durc, maybe even think that Jonayla seemed weaker, or uglier, than her son.  Instead she just says: "She's perfect!"  I guess that's nice, but since her standard of "normal" was defined by the Clan, I'm surprised it doesn't influence her more here.

2.  The Zelandonia.  With the zelandonia, we get our first taste of a priesthood -- a female-dominated priesthood at that.  Until now, the shaman figures have mostly been individuals, from Creb to Mamut to S'Armuna.  But this time we see a network of priests actually consulting with one another and ranked according to experience and ability.  Auel's presentation of the zelandonia and their rituals is probably her richest since her portrayal of Clan culture in her first novel.  I especially liked seeing their rituals with regard to Shenovar's funeral (see below) and the ritual guiding Thonolan and Jetamio's spirits to the afterlife.  Of course the zelandonia must be complex and powerful, the biggest, baddest priesthood in town.  Otherwise, it would make no sense for Ayla to join them, since the unwritten rule of this series is that she can only be part of high status groups.

Zelandoni the First is an interesting character -- sort of like Tulie with real power.  Auel took pains to present her as formidable, canny, and thoughtful.  Also, even though Zelandoni is plus-size, she is portrayed as graceful and strong, never the object of disgust.  That said, it is interesting that Zelandoni's weight gain effectively removed her as a rival for Jondalar's affections (she was Zolena back in the day).  The novel makes it clear that while fat women can be respected, they certainly can never be *gasp* objects of lust or viable partners for hunky men like Jondalar.  While Jondalar might look at Zelandoni with fondness, he would never view her as a sex partner the way he would Ayla or (spoiler for the next novel) Marona.

3.  The Burial Ritual.  The funeral of Shenovar, a minor character, lasts far too long, but has several fascinating moments.  One consists of digging the burial pit, which requires the diggers to be completely covered to prevent lingering spirits at the burial site from possessing them.  The account of the digging and the cleansing afterward made me feel, for the first time since The Clan of the Cave Bear, like I was peeking at a world quite foreign to my own.  Also interesting is the account of the line at the burial feast, where Marthona subtly arranges for Ayla to walk with the highest-ranking members of the Ninth Cave rather than at the end with the lowest-ranking members.

4.  Brukeval.  In this novel, Brukeval has the potential -- potential -- to be a very interesting character.  At the time I read Shelters, knowing nothing of the final installment, I thought he could have a very good story arc.  Yes, it is rather unbelievable that Jondalar never mentioned a cousin whose grandmother was raped by a member of the Clan, but at least we have another significant character with a Clan connection.  What is more, like Brugar, there is a sense that Brukeval's mind has been warped by his being caught between two worlds.  Brukeval tries to deny his Clan background, which makes him sensitive to any "flathead" slurs aimed at him or otherwise.  He even threatens to become violent when Ayla presses him to acknowledge his Clan side.  Will he be reformed, or will his anger lead him to take drastic, violent action?  Sadly (spoiler) his story has no satisfying conclusion.

5.  Ayla Kind of, Sort of, Almost Gets It.  When Ayla considers the situation with Brukeval's grandmother, she kind of, sort of, almost starts to understand that for Others, the Clan practice of freely raping women to satisfy their needs wouldn't fly.  She notes that the society in which Brukeval's grandmother was raised would not condone women being ordered about as in Clan society.  That said, Ayla does not make the final connection, which is that Clan "satisfying their needs" with an Other -- or with their own women -- is virtually indistinguishable from Others raping a member of the Clan.  While there are no roving bands of Clan raping helpless Others, any woman in that situation would be expected to obey, whether she wanted sex or not.  If she tried to escape, the man would be permitted to physically abuse her and could easily overpower her.    

6.  Ayla Saves a Family.  Okay, Saint Ayla does rear her head a few times in this novel, but in one case I approve.  She intervenes to save the life of a sickly baby belonging to resident white trash Laramar and Tremeda, and helps their other children along the way.  It just goes to show that even the Ice Age had its slums, slum dwellers, and people who looked the other way.    

7.  Finally Ayla and Jondalar Mate, Have Children.  Despite how boring I find Ayla's character, the part of me that bonded with the little girl in The Clan of the Cave Bear was happy to see her finally settle down with someone she loved.  Her first night mated to Jondalar and her introduction to their new home are rather sweet.  I'm also thankful that her daughter's birth is not harrowing like her son's.

The Bad

1.  What Zelandonii Prejudice?  Prior to this novel, a big deal was made about the Zelandonii sense of cultural superiority.  They are especially prejudiced toward the Clan, and even more so toward children of mixed spirits.  So when Ayla tells Jondalar's family about being raised by the Clan in Chapter Four, we expect some sort of significant reaction.  Instead we learn that Willomar (inexplicably Willamar now) has always long suspected that the Clan were human beings, and everyone else is sort of okay with accepting that.  Yes they express more outrage upon learning that Charoli raped Madenia than Clan women, but there is no thundering: "I won't have MY son mating someone who lived with those filthy animals!!!"

However, even people who accept the Clan in theory might have trouble accepting that Jondalar's would-be mate gave birth to a half-Clan child.  Recall that Jondalar did not express complete revulsion until he learned about Durc.  Yet Ayla and Auel never give us the opportunity to see their reaction to this news.  Ayla, who has always been honest and forthcoming about her Clan past, suddenly clams up when faced with having to mention Durc to Jondalar's family.  In some ways that is understandable: Ayla was okay with leaving any place that wouldn't accept her before.  But now she is her future mate's home, the place she wants to be home.  While in theory, Ayla could leave the Ninth Cave, she is tired of traveling.

So yes, it is understandable, but Auel hardly spends any time on the psychology behind Ayla's decision.  So Ayla's attitude seems like a copout, and Jondalar's worry about his family's reaction was for naught.

What we see otherwise is that while the Zelandonii are hardly on board with Clan-Other mating, their opposition lacks punch.  Zelandoni (the only one other than Jondalar who knows about Durc) considers murdering Ayla's baby if it is born mixed, but when put in a position to take a stand against a "mixture," she instead oversees the mating of Joplaya and Echozar.  Jondalar didn't even realize that Brukeval's mother was a mixture, which I find hard to believe.  The only one who expresses genuine loathing of mixed children is Brukeval, and that is because he feels like an outsider.

In fact, Echozar's mere presence could play a huge role in breaking stereotypes about the Clan and mixed children.  He is, after all, a true mixture whose mother was Clan.  You could even argue that between Ayla and Joplaya, Joplaya is the more courageous one, mating someone who she knew would receive disapproval instead of Mr. High Status Blond Beefcake.  Sorry Ayla: I guess you weren't needed to save the world, after all.

2.  Marona Sputters.  As stated above, Marona was presented in The Valley of Horses as a somewhat formidable figure.  In the first Jondalar-Thonolan chapter, Thonolan notes: "Marona really knows how to please a man -- when she wants to.  But that temper of hers...  You're the only man who has ever been able to handle her, Jondalar, though there are plenty who would take her, temper and all."  Based on the women characters in previous installments, I was expecting Marona to be a mature woman like Serenio, or perhaps a basically decent woman with a fiery temper like Tricie.  Instead, she turns out to be a poor man's Regina George.

I suppose it's to Auel's credit that only now do we get a bitchy Mean Girls character in the Earth's Children series.  Instead of complicating Jondalar and Ayla's relationship in intriguing ways -- such as if Marona had a son for whom Jondalar felt responsible -- she only serves to vindicate how right Jondalar was to dump her in the first place.  To get back at Jondalar, she decides to hurt Ayla... by tricking her into wearing something stupid.  Which completely blows up in Marona's face when Ayla responds with class and dignity.  Take that... um, woman nursing hurt feelings who didn't project them at the right source!  Marona is then reduced to a cartoon baddie who vows revenge while rubbing her hands together and cackling.

If anything, Marona's rotten-to-the-core attitude makes me question Jondalar's judgment.  How could he have ever thought that a mating between them would work?  Okay, he was young and felt pressured to settle down, and on the surface, Marona looked like the ideal woman.  But given the troubling things we learn about Marona and her mother in this novel and the next, I'm surprised Marthona would condone the match.  Isn't she supposed to be wise and discerning?  In any event, Jondalar looks like a huge heel for not telling Ayla about his history with Marona, or about her spiteful nature.    

3.  Jondalar Is a Bore.  It's really too bad there were no complications with Marona, because The Shelters of Stone reveals what we only suspected before: when Jondalar is not worried about Ayla or wanting to go home, he is an empty vessel.  Consider that he is finally home among his people after a five-year absence.  Wouldn't you expect him to think about how strange it feels to be "home" now that he has been out in the wider world?  Maybe he would wonder if certain people were still alive or if they had changed?  Maybe he would view his culture as narrow minded and self absorbed in a way that he had never done before?  Wouldn't you expect to hear more stories and surprises about Jondalar from the people who knew him?

Nope, none of that.  Or at least very little.  Jondalar comes home, is like "Wow, it's great to be home!", and proceeds to act as if he never left.

4.  No Clan.  Once again, the Clan is only present in the form of Echozar and Brukeval.  But it's not just that no Clan member is physically present: Ayla is also slowly putting aside her Clan ties.  The most significant example of this is when she takes off her Clan amulet containing signs from her totem when she puts on her mating outfit.  While there are some parts of her Clan past that I wouldn't mind Ayla shedding, her amulet is not one of them.  Her amulet and her totem gave her strength during all of her ordeals, and have been a significant part of her character up until now.      

5.  The Mother's Song.  It must have taken Jean Auel nearly all of the 12 years between installments to write the Zelandonii Mother Song.  She is clearly quite proud of it, for she repeats it or refers to it several times throughout the novel.  Had she shown it once and then maybe a short snippet here or there, it would have been fine, but she reprints the whole thing more than once.  It includes lines like: "The Mother was lonely.  She was the only."  What is this, a Taylor Swift song?  I can't imagine that anyone would find it pleasant to sing, but I guess it was their bible or what have you.

6.  Nothing Really Happens.  The entire plot line of The Shelters of Stone could be summed up as: "Ayla and Jondalar arrive at the Ninth Cave and live there for nine or ten months."  There was no real plot to speak of in The Plains of Passage, but at least that one had a little urgency.  In this novel, every day starts like: "What should we do today?  Why don't we visit Blankazar and Whateva at the Second Cave?"  Most of the people Ayla encounters, except for Marona or Brukeval, are pleasantly bland.  So much for the tense standoff that we all predicted.

Other Things Worth Mentioning

1.  Writing Irritants.  I haven't said enough about this, but Auel has some irritating writing tics, and not just having to do with sex.  The narrative redundancy is bad enough, with the cut-and-paste recounts of past novels worse than ever, but Auel is even redundant in her choice of language.  For instance, the people looked at Ayla with "shocked surprise."  You mean they looked at her with shock, or they looked at her with surprise.  "Shocked surprise" is just redundant.  Another example is "anxious worry": he looked at her anxiously, or he looked at her with worry -- there is no need for both.  It's annoying!  Please stop!

2.  Monarchies and Nepotism.  I like how the Zelandonii act as if their leadership isn't hereditary.  As if the Ninth Cave just happened to decide that Joharran was the best possible person to lead them, and his parents being leaders had nothing to do with it.  Likewise, it's just a coincidence that one family in the Second Cave spawned not only the Zelandoni of that cave, but also the leader.  I'm sure no one leaned on the other cave members.  And if Joharran dies before Jaradal comes of age, people will naturally turn to Jondalar to be leader because he is just so wise.

3.  Brun, Broud, Brugar, Brukeval...  What's with all of the Br- names for those associated with the Clan?


Jean Auel's aversion to dealing with true conflict finally has serious storyline ramifications.  But at least she has one more chance to get it right.  Right?!

Next Time:  The Land of Painted Caves.  And in the end, the love you take... MAKES MY BABY!!!

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1 comment:

  1. I totally agree I waded through the last two books like most readers wanting to find some kind of reunion with mother and son, to no avail and the wading was indeed a wast of precious time