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THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough

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I’ve wanted to read this book for years, but I’m glad I waited till I was at a stage in my life when I might appreciate it the most (though it wasn’t deliberate). I didn’t know anything about the story before I started except that it’s a classic Australian novel, epic in scope, and was made into a mini-series or something starring Rachel Ward years ago. I like not knowing much about books before I read them, though: it leaves you wide-open for the story to be told, and absorbed.

This is indeed an epic book. It spans three generations of the Cleary family, focusing mostly on Meggie. Starting in New Zealand on the day of her fourth birthday, The Thorn Birds follows the large family of Paddy and Fee and their children Frank, Bob, Jack, Hughie, Stuart, Meggie and baby Hal as they sail to Australia at the invitation of Paddy’s wealthy land-owning sister Mary, who intends him to inherit the vast estate of Drogheda in northwest NSW. Even by Australian standards, it’s a big farm: 250,000 acres, 80 miles across at its widest point, home to over 100,000 merino sheep.

The Clearys, who had been poor farmhands in NZ, fall in love with Drogheda and learn the ways of the land, the climate, the weather, the animals, pretty quickly. The book is divided up into 7 sections titled Meggie 1915-1917; Ralph 1921-1928; Paddy 1929-1932; Luke 1933-1938; Fee 1938-1953; Dane 1954-1965; and Justine 1965-1969. These provide a slight focus, but the only characters who really dominate the story are Meggie, Ralph – the Catholic priest who falls in love with her – and Justine, Meggie’s daughter by Luke.

There is definitely tragedy in this book, but I never once found it depressing. It is similar in its structure to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but completely different, and successful in a way the latter book was not (for me): The Thorn Birds made me care. Each character is so beautifully rendered, as if they were indeed living people whose memories were captured by a light, non-judgemental hand. Every character evoked strong feelings in me, which changed as the characters changed. Luke, for instance, I wanted to throttle and ended up pitying. Meggie, in her naivete, was at times exasperating, yet she learned and I was proud of her for that – then angry, for the way she set Dane above Justine. Sometimes I absolutely hated Ralph and wanted to smack him; at other times I felt so deeply for him and his emotional turmoil.

I can’t get over how well written this book is. It is simply told, in an omniscient third-person voice, only sometimes, when needed, delving in deeper into the hearts and minds of the main characters to reveal their thoughts and feelings. The clashing perceptions people have are accurately portrayed, the poor judgements, bad decisions, mistakes – all so life-like, so real. Inferences, connections and insights can be deduced from hints in the story, but McCullough leaves a lot for the reader to realise on their own. And behind it all, like a glorious backdrop, the gorgeous landscape, so vivid and true. History and politics are there also: two world wars, the Depression, the Great Drought that ended when WWII ended, everything from clothing to attitudes to cars, as well as changing Australian slang, attitudes, the quirks – most of it slipping in unobtrusively, at other times pivotal to the plot.

That there is a plot is undeniable: that it is noticeable, I doubt very much. I don’t like to predict stories anyway – the only ones I do that to are unavoidable, like Steven Seagal movies – but there was very little in this book that I could have predicted had I tried. Maybe I’m just out of practice, but there was no sense of an author dictating or pushing the characters towards certain goals. A few things I could see coming, like Dane turning out just like his father, but even then it felt completely natural, not as though McCullough was manipulating the story.

If you’re interested in reading about Australia (or just epic stories in general), this is a great book to start with. It’s not even out-of-date, things change so slowly! Just picture stockmen flying helicopters around herds of cattle instead of riding, their properties are so humungous. The droughts are still there, the floods, the flies, the fires, the vernacular – though the Catholics have almost disappeared. The religion aspect of the novel is equally fascinating, and handled diplomatically as well. It is a book about ordinary people living ordinary lives, and sometimes deliberately causing themselves pain: hence the reference to the thorn bird, which pierces its breast on a rose thorn as it sings, and dies.

Favourite quotes:

“There is a legend about a bird which sings only once in it’s life, more beautifully than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves it’s nest, it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, it impales it’s breast on the longest, sharpest thorn. But as it is dying, it rises above it’s own agony to outsing the Lark and the Nightingale. The Thornbird pays it’s life for that one song, and the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles, as it’s best is brought only at the cost of great pain; Driven to the thorn with no knowledge of the dying to come. But when we press the thorn to our breast, we know, we understand…. and still, we do it.”

“We’re working-class people, which means we don’t get rich or have maids. Be content with what you are and what you have.”

“You still think love can save us. It’s more killing than hate. Hate is so clean, so simple. Like being in the ring. With hate, you just keep hitting. You hit until they stop hitting back. With love… They never stop.”

“For the best is only brought at the cost of great pain. Or so says the legend.”

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