Rating: 3 Stars
Colleen McCullough’s ‘The Thorn Birds’ is one of the biggest best-sellers to come out of Australia, that enjoyed even greater popularity in the 70’s after it was serialized for T.V.
The Cleary family – father Paddy, mother Fiona, and their brood of offspring - move from their native New Zealand to the not too distant shores of Australia at the invitation of Paddy’s wealthy elder sister - Mary Carson. They are for all intentions the heirs to Drogheda, Mary Carson’s sheep-ranch in New South Wales, and they learn to love the rough country that is their new home. Ten-year old Meggie Cleary, the only girl in the family, captures the benevolent attention of Father Ralph de Bricassart the handsome young Catholic priest of Gillanbone. Things get a little complicated as Meggie grows older. Bricassart is bothered both by Meggie’s virginal adoration of him, and his own changing feelings for her. Meggie’s dowager aunt, who also had her gimlet eye on Ralph, soon shows them the hellish fury of a woman scorned. Covering a span of more than half a century, the book is part romance, part family drama, past historical fiction.
What McCullough does well, she does very well indeed. She is excellent in the details: the minutiae of sheep-farming, cutting cane and life in the trenches of WW II add vibrant life to the story. McCullough’s Australia is a land that is at once harsh, yet beautiful, and her writing glides with the grace of a painter’s brush in its description of people, places, and abundant wild life.
Where she trips up is, perhaps, in characterization. This is a book teeming with people (700 pages requires a vast cast of characters), and some are depicted better than others. Considering that the star-crossed romance of Meggie and Ralph lies at the heart of the novel, the duo struck me as the weakest link. The relationship comes off as stilted and forced – an imitation of passion rather than the real thing. Ralph comes off as particularly flat and uninspiring.
What can I say? It just awakens my snarky side:
when Meggie bemoans Ralph’s unwillingness to choose her over the Church – “(yawn) He’s a priest, you twit. Try to wrap your brain cells around that idea if you can.”
when Ralph risibly states that 'hundreds of women have wanted' him – “Yeah, right. I personally find it difficult to imagine the legions of women panting to defrock this man in black when he’s thrice described as (snigger) ‘flaccid’”
when the author shamelessly surrenders to her school-girl impulses, and pens innumerable fawning phrases on the awesome pulchritude of her protagonists - “Enough already! Handsome is as handsome does. Show me some character I can chew on!”
This is by no means a bad book. If only my inner critic would shut up, I would probably enjoy this type of novel more; but it won't and therefore I can't.
Anyway, my personal handicaps aside, many others did find this book entrancing. For no small reason is it ‘an international best seller’. Strong, long-suffering matriarchs; tragic irony; poetic justice; parallel situations; one too many cases of apples not falling too far from the tree; power; money; and, forbidden love – it’s no epic, but it’s one heck of a multi-generational soap-operatic family saga, with surprisingly good writing to boot.