This book is set in Siberia 20,000 years ago. The narrator died before the story began and tells her story from the point of view of a spirit. As a spirit she can remember her life as human (aged from about 10 to her late teens); she can observe the current life of her family group; and she change and live as another animal such as a wolf or a mammoth. The three strands are intertwined, each being explored in some depth. The reader is quickly drawn in and stays involved right to the end. It’s a book you think about when you are not reading it, and long after you’ve finished.
The historical background appears to be well researched and the picture of life as a daily struggle seems very realistic. It is by no means a life that can be dismissed as 'nasty, brutish and short' but it is hard to survive in a harsh environment and parts of the tale were almost unbearably harrowing for me as a reader. Socially there are many elements, which we recognise, even comparing our centrally heated world with periglacial Siberia: jealousy, dishonestly, love and naivety to name but a few. The characters each have a mix of good and evil – mostly, non-judgementally described.
I believe the author was an anthropologist among modern hunter-gatherers before writing this book and I wonder how many of her ideas grow out of this background? I was surprised at how she depicted people living in such difficult circumstance who did not always share all resources and look after each other as a matter of course. I would also expect your average Palaeolithic man or woman on the stone to have some knowledge of folk medicine, which this community seemed to lack entirely.
Most startling to me was the idea that what the living thought of the spirit-world was actually an accurate reflection of what happened there. It was also surprising to find that the living control the spirit-world, when the modern view is generally that it is the other way round!
Finally, there is a bibliography in this book. Rare enough to find this in a factual work – unheard of but most welcome in fiction.