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Book Review: The Gathering Night by Margaret Elpinstone

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No one knows, of course, who among the many fiction writers who have tackled life in the darker reaches of prehistory has got closest to imagining life as it really was then. Short of an invention of a practical time machine, no one ever will.

But it’s a fascinating game. The most successful by far, in terms of sales anyway, has been Jean Auel with her Earth’s Children series. They are appallingly badly written – the sex scenes are particularly excruciating – and hideously overlong, but they are clearly based on extensive research and their imagining of the Neanderthal mind in particular, and the creative exploration of its possible interaction with the earliest of our own kind, grasp, this reader senses, some faint glimmering of truth. Not to mention the fact she has created one of the great adventure heroines of popular literature.

Margaret Elphinstone, in her new The Gathering Night, has created a small tribe of hunter-gatherers living comfortably enough beside a sub-Arctic sea feasting on the riches of that and a still fertile land – split in certain seasons into small family groups and in others gathering in one difficult, turbulent group.

Her core group, who take it in turns to tell the tale, are a family riven by the sudden, inexplicable loss of a healthy young hunter. His mother, unable to come to terms with this, is gradually taking the path of becoming a Go-Between, a shaman, shocking because females in this role, forbidden access to the vital hunting magic, are rare and disturbing.

There’s challenge and danger too in inexplicably changing seasons, which are making game scarcer, and in the arrival of strangers, swept in the detritus of a tidal wave that wiped out most of their people.

Elphinstone’s jacket writers have done her no favours in trying to make comparison with the pinch humankind now finds itself in: one small, simple tribal society, whose problems are quite discrete and indeed solvable, are no model for a six-billion-strong world.

But in creating a believable, Stone Age world, with a mindset of its people, Elphinstone has done well enough: she’s clearly used as a guide the extensive knowledge we have of the modern era shamanist practices of the New World and Siberia, and her accounts of hunting techniques, tools, etc. are clearly well researched.

Yet is this a believably Mesolithic world? For me, in this, Elphinstone has failed, possibly because she’d relied too much on that model of shamanism, about which we have considerable data from the past couple of centuries. While it might be one of the best models we have about how such a society might have functioned, to assume that the boundless human imagination would have continued almost unchanged for so long fails the “does it feel right?” test.

So it’s a lively, nicely crafted tale of wilderness Stone Age life, the constant shifting of view is so well handled that you’ll seldom need to check back who’s talking, all-in-all a good yarn. But not, it feels to me, of Mesolithic life.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • What’s your basis?

    I think it’s unfair to say Jean Auel’s books are “appallingly badly written.” From your description, it sounds as if you don’t like all that attention to detail. Fair enough, but does an attention to detail shown through thorough description result in bad writing?

  • As a reader I believe the test of good writing is whether it has the power to move me emotionally. When it comes to Jean Auel and the Earth’s Children books, I find they easily pass the test. They’re certainly not traditional literary works but somehow they leave a deep and long lasting impression. And I personally love the idea that our earliest ancestors worshipped the Gift of Pleasure. That is so refreshing compared to the old idea of caveman-rapists with clubs.