An art-history mystery that spans 17,000 years, THE CAVES OF PÉRIGORD is an entertaining romp through the part of southern France known for its cave paintings, including the famous Lascaux cave. Written by historian and National Public Radio commentator Martin Walker, the book is divided into segments set in three separate times: the present; 1943-44; and circa 15,000 B.C. Romance, war, and betrayal are intertwined with French politics, ancient religion, murder, family, and feminism. It's a lot to hold together in one book, but although some of the dialogue sounds wooden and the writing isn't always gloriously lyrical, Walker does a good job of maintaining intrigue while avoiding confusion.
We're first introduced to Lydia Dean, a 30-year-old American art historian who specializes in all things preclassical. Lydia is smart, beautiful and probably about to be fired from her job at a London auction house. Business hasn't been great --- the big-money collectors don't tend to get turned on by obscure Egyptian figurines and Sumerian pottery shards --- and she senses that the ax is poised. Enter Major Philip Manners, a distinguished-looking young Englishman who strolls into her office with a slab of rock he's just inherited from his father. Painted on the rock is a small figure of a bull, and Lydia recognizes the style as being remarkably similar to that of the Lascaux cave paintings.
Excited, Lydia embarks on a quest to find out whether the painting is authentic and, if so, where it comes from. If it was chipped from the wall of an undiscovered cave of the Lascaux era, and she finds the cave, she'll never have to worry about her career again. She calls in some experts, and the story leaps rapidly to Périgord, where Lydia, Manners, a dogged German researcher, and a feisty French museum curator track down clues to the rock's origins.
Most of those clues have to do with Manners's father, a British captain who spent time in the Périgord in 1943 and '44, training French Resistance soldiers in the use of explosives and machine guns. Lydia and company presume he found the painting in a cave there and brought it back to England with him, where it had been sitting anonymously on his bookshelf until he died and his son decided to have it appraised.
In some of the book's most successful scenes, Manners the elder and his fellow soldiers --- an American named McPhee; Francoise Malrand, a Frenchman who would later become President; Marat, a shady Communist who leads a rowdy bunch of Spanish guerrillas; and a large supporting cast of men all fighting the Germans --- come to life in their struggle to free France. Manners and Malrand, in particular, are compelling and well-developed characters. And the author's use of realistic detail lends these scenes credibility and drama: The fighting consists mainly of blowing up train lines; squabbles between the Gaullists and the Communists threaten to tear apart the Resistance as the possibility of victory against the Germans looms closer; cars are stolen left and right; and despite rationing, everybody smokes cigarettes.
Interspersed with the scenes from the present and the 1940s are several chapters set in 15,000 B.C. These are vividly imagined if occasionally a bit hokey descriptions of the people who lived along the Dordogne River in the part of France now called the Périgord. Walker traces the consequences of an ancient doomed romance on two generations of people in the modern world. He fascinatingly re-creates Lascaux and similar cave paintings, which may lead readers straight to the library to see for themselves those beasts leaping along the cavern walls. Walker also provokes some questions about what the cave paintings may have meant to the people who made them, and how and why that meaning may have changed.
The book's main flaw is Walker's ham-fisted treatment of romance. Lydia, especially, comes across as an escapee from "Melrose Place," the way her intense passion for art is almost immediately converted into a mildly dreamy lust for Manners. On seeing the Lascaux cave paintings for the first time, Lydia can't take her eyes off the radiant face of the Englishman. "Realizing that she had suppressed this thought too long," Walker writes, "Lydia knew that she wanted to bed this man." Either Walker is less than adept at writing women, or Lydia's simply a bland, shallow character. Either way, the novel could have done with fewer mawkish love scenes --- the tale of adventure that Walker invents is plenty sexy on its own.
Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen on February 12, 2002
The Caves of Perigord