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Land of Painted Caves by Jean M Auel

(H&S Fiction, $60)

The much-anticipated final instalment to Jean o Auel’s Earth’s Children series, The Land of the Painted Caves, has arrived. But it’s almost 10 years since her last novel and it feels like the heroine is past her prime.

We first met Ayla in Clan of The Cave Bear in 1980. Since then fans can’t seem to get enough of Ayla, who was five in the first book when she lost her family in an earthquake and was taken in by Neanderthals.

These were harsh times – the summers were cold, there were tigers to kill and wearing a fringe meant you were a tart.

In Painted Caves, Ayla is now 25 and training to become a spiritual healer among the Zelandoni – prototypes of modern humans. In rising to the challenge Ayla faces the typical career woman’s dilemma – striking a work/family balance.

This path also sees her relationship with long-term “mate” Jondalar tested. Yes, he’s devoted to Ayla, but can a man with so many female admirers stay faithful while his mate spends all her time visiting painted caves?

Everyone gets the chance to swap mates on a special night – the Summer oeeting festival. Jealousy is frowned upon, but you can’t blame someone for not wanting to watch their partner making the most of the festival.

overall, the book is a bit repetitive – it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, and visiting so many caves becomes tedious. But you have to hand it to 74-year-old Jean’s ice-age research – she’s spent the night in a snow cave, softened hides with deer brains that she squished with her bare hands and started a fire without matches.

This book is the last in the Earth’s Children series, but Jean isn’t ruling out revisiting Ayla’s quest. Painted Caves still leaves a few loose ends to tie up.

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